To rob the office of a Chief Justice is not to commit a simple criminal act. It is to commit an atrocity against our democracy. It is an act which looks designed to strike fear at the heart of the country’s final authority to interpret the Constitution. It is designed to break, tear, damage the very fabric of that document itself. But it also must have been deliberately designed to cause damage to our society as a whole.
The people who did this are thugs. They do not care for the Constitution. They do not care for any of us, they do not see themselves as ordinary citizens. Like Richard Nixon or Donald Trump, these are people who believe that something is right, as long as it is they who did it. Over the next few weeks, there will be twisting and spinning and deflecting and tumbling over who is responsible for this incredible outrage. In the end it boils down to two questions. Who benefits? And who has the means and the opportunity to do this?
On Saturday afternoon came confirmation from the Office of the Chief Justice that it had been robbed in the early hours of that morning. But instead of a group of people just taking whatever they could, only computers in the human resources area were stolen. In other words, someone has targeted, deliberately, information about our judges. Chief Justice Mogoeng Mogoeng’s officials described it like this, “The stolen computers contain important information about judges and officials of the OCJ and constitute a huge setback for the entire administration of justice.” In other words, they don’t see it as an ordinary robbery either.
What could be more serious than this? And who would do it, and why?
It is hard to avoid pointing the finger of suspicion at people in high office. Perhaps, probably even, the highest office.
It is surely common cause that no one has been more frustrated by the judiciary than President Jacob Zuma. Time and time and time and time again, and twice just last Friday, judges have been the people who have stopped the government he leads from breaking the law. If they are not ensuring that social grants are paid and stopping Bathabile Dlamini in her tracks, judges are explaining carefully and no doubt through gritted teeth why it’s illegal to appoint a liar to head the Hawks. Government has lost so often in the court that the Public Service Commission had to conduct an investigation. They found what you already know – it’s not the legal advice, it’s the politicians.
And surely no one has felt more frustrated by this than Zuma himself.
His supporters will point out, as they do, that Zuma has always obeyed court orders. But only after pushing and stretching as far as he can first, and only because politically, he has no choice. This is a man who appointed Menzi Simelane, who himself had lied under oath, as the National Director of Public Prosecutions. The same person who is friends with the Guptas. If the president believed in the rule of law, surely his response upon hearing that one of his own deputy ministers had been offered the position of Finance Minister would have been to investigate. Instead, he said that Mcebisi Jonas’s claim was “nothing to do with me”. And if he truly believed in the rule of law that he swore to uphold, he would not think aloud about “being a dictator for six months”. If he believed in the rule of law he would not have claimed to not notice what was happening at his own home of Nkandla.
And if he had any respect for the rule of law, and for the rest of us as citizens, he would simply not have lied about his real reason for sacking Nhlanhla Nene as Finance Minister. And many, many more times.
So, when we ask ourselves who would benefit, who would gain, and who would want to intimidate judges, well, it’s hard to see how this is not a compelling case against, well, him.
And then we have the person who, nominally perhaps, controls the kind of people who could carry out an act like this. State Security Minister David Mahlobo.
The DA’s Chief Whip John Steenhuisen suggested on Twitter on Saturday night that when it comes to finding out who is responsible, his “money’s on Mahlobo” and the kak-handed SSA.
Amazingly, the ANC then responded. Using both barrels, it said Steenhuisen had no proof of this claim, that he should offer proof and that they hoped Mahlobo sued him for defamation. Steenhuisen is standing by his claim. And who wouldn’t enjoy being sued by someone of Mahlobo’s reputation?
He was appointed to the position of State Security Minister by Zuma, despite having little or no constituency of his own. As always, when someone who does not have their own independent support or standing is appointed to a crucial job, it is because the person who appoints them wants to control them completely. It’s a way of ensuring loyalty. And Mahlobo has delivered. It was he who jammed cellphones in the National Assembly in 2015. It is he who is appointed to every task force known to Zuma whenever he needs to tip the balance of ministers his way. It could be claimed here that we are questioning Mahlobo’s moral character unfairly. But what moral character does a person have, if they spend a lot of time with a rhino poacher/smuggler?
And of course we already know that Mahlobo does not believe in democracy, or our Constitution. Earlier this year he said that South Africa is “under siege” from people who “abuse the judiciary.” He also said he wanted to introduce laws to regulate Twitter and other social media, and famously stated that some NGOs were sponsored by foreign forces. This is the kind of person we are dealing with. No morals, no integrity, no belief in the Constitution, no belief in the rule of law. Just a belief that he, and his principal, are right. Because, for Mahlobo, might is right.
Unfortunately, this is not the first time there has been an incident like this, the theft of computers – and thus really of information – for political gain. In fact, our history of this goes back a very long way indeed. Last year the Helen Suzman Foundation was robbed, just as it was starting its application to have Mthandazo Ntlemeza removed from the position of head of the Hawks (they finally won on Friday).
Go back a little further, and there is the case of Advocate Muzi Sikhakhane. He was robbed in 2012, while representing both Richard Mdluli and Julius Malema. As he put it at the time, “these people read and they don’t drink”, after they stole documents, but not alcohol. There is also the case of Patrick Craven. His laptops were stolen, in the same year. At the time, Cosatu was in turmoil. Again, nothing else was taken.
And a whole 10 years before that, in 2002, computers belonging to the DA were interfered with in seven separate incidents in a period of just three weeks.
In all of these cases, there is no finality, no answer to the question: who did it? That alone should raise questions about who was ultimately responsible. And why it was done.
Those in the Presidency, or who support Zuma, may well feel that all of this criticism, this finger-pointing without hard proof, is unfair. And that he is a responsible person when it comes to his handling of the intelligence agencies.
In theory, they are right. In reality... There’s just too much circumstantial evidence not to point a finger at Zuma. Sadly.
Why would he appoint someone with the complicated history of Arthur Fraser to the position of Director-General in the State Security Agency? Why would he allow the position of Inspector-General of Intelligence to be left vacant for 20 months? And why were the former spy bosses, Moe Shaik, Gibson Njenje and Jeff Maqetuka, all pushed out in 2011?
And then members of Zuma’s own Cabinet have complained that their phones were being tapped, for political purposes. In 2012 now Sports Minister Fikile Mbalula said he believed his conversations were being recorded. Again, Zuma sat back, and did nothing.
Probably no one in South Africa’s history has exercised such personal control over a security cluster, employing not the best, and certainly not the brightest, but people with damaged careers, whose main qualification for the job was slavish dedication to the Boss. (Exhibit One: Hawks boss Mthandazo Ntlemeza)
This is a case where context is everything. Because it is impossible to prove, almost certainly will always be impossible to prove, that Zuma was at all involved, did initiate this “robbery” or even sanctioned it. That said, it is as damning an indictment of his presidency as there can be, that he will be the first suspect for many people. It tells you everything you need to know about his legacy, and about how he has conducted himself throughout his time as President of South Africa.
And one should be careful here about conflating Zuma with the ANC. It is likely that Luthuli House is as shocked as everyone else. And perhaps as suspicious. But for the ANC to truly show that, it also has to take action against the man whom it has so far allowed to run riot.
It is important to say at this point that in fact it is entirely in Zuma’s power to dispel this suspicion. It’s usually impossible to prove a negative. But he could appoint a completely independent commission to investigate this theft. Chaired for a former judge, perhaps even a former Deputy Chief Justice (I presume you mean one Justice D. Moseneke – Ed). On that panel could be a completely independent police person. Say the last national police commissioner to avoid disgrace, one George Fivaz. (Yes, it indeed is 16 years since South Africa’s police commissioner left without being fired, or jailed.) If Zuma did this, he would go a long way to showing that the above suspicion is wrong, and that we are treating him unfairly.
But it is unlikely in the extreme that he will do this. His track record just doesn’t indicate it.
Because what we do know about him is that he is someone who believes he is not the First Citizen. He believes he is something else. Someone above the law. Like Nixon, he believes, “But when the President does it, that means it’s not illegal”.
Stephen Grootes is the senior political correspondent for Eyewitness News and the host of the Midday Report on Talk Radio 702 and 567 CapeTalk. He is the author of 'SA Politics Unspun'. Follow him on Twitter: @StephenGrootes