WHEN President Jacob Zuma ascended to the Union Buildings in 2009, it was already clear that he was going to have to answer difficult questions about his commitment to fighting corruption.
His path to power, which included the decision by the National Prosecuting Authority (NPA) not to continue with corruption charges against him despite the conviction of the man who paid him money corruptly, meant that it was going to be difficult to convince his critics of his anticorruption credentials.
However, it now appears those critics may have a huge weapon to use against him, which they could claim is proof he is hypocritical.
And it appears that he simply has no excuse to use as a defence.
On Saturday, while he was delivering the African National Congress’s (ANC’s) annual January 8 statement, Mr Zuma said: "We urge our institutions to continue their hard work (against corruption), and not to become complacent … we urge ANC members and South Africans in general to remain vigilant in the fight against corruption."
It is a message that he has repeated many times over the past few years. It has become traditional for Mr Zuma to mention the successes some of these agencies have had during his state of the nation addresses. In particular, he refers to the investigations currently being carried out by the Special Investigating Unit (SIU).
However, despite Mr Zuma’s request that institutions "continue their hard work", he has left the SIU without a permanent head for over a year. It is now 13 months since he removed advocate Willie Hofmeyr from that post, and appointed former judge Willem Heath.
Judge Heath lasted only 10 days, before he fell on his sword, after giving a newspaper interview in which he claimed former president Thabo Mbeki had been responsible for the corruption conviction of Mr Zuma’s former financial adviser Schabir Shaik.
While there have been similar instances in which institutions have been left leaderless for long periods of time, such as the NPA, Mr Zuma’s officials have always been able to point to legal reasons.
In the case of the NPA, appointments were the subject of lengthy court proceedings. In other situations, there has been a conflict over who should do the job.
In this case there is no such excuse. The head of the SIU is solely in the president’s gift; only he can make this appointment.
While it is unclear exactly what effect this situation is having on the unit, Corruption Watch head David Lewis says: "all important institutions require permanent heads … and I can’t really understand why that (the delay in the appointment) should be the case. I can’t help but believe it makes them less efficient and more malleable to pressure from the top."
Considering that Corruption Watch was set up by the Congress of South African Trade Unions, which has strongly supported Mr Zuma politically, it cannot be claimed that there is a political agenda behind Mr Lewis’s comments.
There also appears, from the outside, to be no political reason why no appointment has been forthcoming. ANC figures have not revealed any internal conflict over the position.
While there were some rumours that the party’s Mangaung conference might decide to shut down the unit, it is not clear yet that such a decision was in fact taken.
The Presidency itself has been asked several times over the last few months to shed light on whether an appointment will be made, and to explain the cause of the delay.
The fact that no answer has been forthcoming could lead to ordinary citizens questioning Mr Zuma’s commitment to fighting corruption.
• Grootes is an Eyewitness News reporter.
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