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S.Africa’s Zuma launches anti-corruption blitz

Published on 24/10/2011

South African President Jacob Zuma on Monday launched a major anti-corruption drive, sacking two ministers, suspending the police chief and naming a panel to probe a multi-billion-dollar arms deal.

The surprise announcement marked Zuma’s most aggressive move yet to rein in corruption claims which have dogged him and his government, as he tries to shore up his position ahead of his party’s leadership conference next year.

Zuma sacked Sicelo Shiceka, the minister for local government, and Public Works Minister Gwen Mahlangu-Nkabinde, while suspending national police commissioner Bheki Cele.

He also named a top judge to head a commission of inquiry into a multi-billion-dollar arms deal which involves claims of bribery in the country’s largest military contract, implicating the president himself.

South Africa’s strident Public Protector Thuli Madonsela earlier this month found Shiceka guilty of misusing public funds for posh holiday travels, while Mahlangu-Nkabinde and Cele were found guilty of misconduct in 1.7 billion rand ($211 million, 153 million euro) leases for new police headquarters.

Zuma thanked the ousted ministers “for their contribution to building a better life for all” in South Africa.

But he also announced a board of inquiry into the police leases, a step that could lead to Cele’s dismissal.

Madonsela, the government’s top corruption watchdog, found Shiceka guilty of abusing public funds with posh hotel stays — including a trip to Switzerland to visit his girlfriend in prison.

Shiceka has threatened legal action over the report, which he has termed “baseless and devoid of evidence”.

Mahlangu-Nkabinde and Cele were also the targets of an investigation by Madonsela into the police leases.

Mahlangu-Nkabinde in particular was accused of failing to cooperate with the public protector’s investigation, which found that she pushed for new leases for police headquarters in Pretoria against legal advice.

Madonsela also found Cele guilty of improper conduct in connection with another lease for a building in the port city of Durban.

Graft and negligence costs South Africa up to 30 billion rands ($3.8 billion) a year, according to police investigators.

But the arms deal investigation could carry the most consequence for Zuma.

Charges tied to the $5 billion arms deal were dropped against Zuma just before his election in 2009, after roiling South African politics for a decade.

The court ruling implied that former president Thabo Mbeki had meddled in the prosecution of the case, which led to Zuma’s dismissal as deputy president in 2005.

Justice Willie Seriti from the Supreme Court of Appeal will head the panel, which also includes two judges from the Pretoria high court, Zuma told reporters.

But he gave the panel two years to complete its work — conveniently after the next leadership conference of the African National Congress in December 2012, when the party will choose its next presidential candidate.

“It’s all indications that Zuma wants to address the criticism against him that he’s a lame duck president, that’s he’s not a strong president, that he doesn’t take initiative,” said University of South Africa political analyst Dirk Kotze.

“It’s also to make his position stronger with respect to next year’s ANC conference, that he is seen as strong within the ANC and that he provides leadership in the ANC.”

Some factions within the ANC would prefer to see Deputy President Kgalema Motlanthe as the party’s next candidate. With its huge majority in parliament, whoever the ANC backs is all but certain to become president.

Zuma’s move was welcomed by allies and rivals alike, from the opposition Democratic Alliance, which called the move “better late than never”, to the powerful Cosatu labour federation, a key ANC ally.

“From now on there must be a policy of zero-tolerance to the looting of public resources by anyone, in the public or private sector, no matter how senior their position,” Cosatu said.