IT IS now largely forgotten but in 1997 former speaker in the National Assembly Baleka Mbete was embroiled in a serious corruption scandal.

She was accused of obtaining fraudulently a learner’s and driver’s licence and, among 44 others, required to testify before an inquiry into the matter. It is worth recalling this because it illustrates much about the African National Congress’s (ANC’s) attitude to accountability and executive office — an attitude that is now well entrenched.

It is also worth recalling because Mbete is embroiled in a new wrangle, as a R25m Gold Fields empowerment deal is under scrutiny because it is alleged Mbete improperly tired to influence it.

So, here is a retrospective on how she got a fraudulent driver’s licence and what the ANC did about it.

Background

Baleka Mbete (formerly Baleka Mbete-Kgositsile) has enjoyed over the past 15 years a fairly meteoric rise through the ANC’s ranks. A long standing member of the ANC’s National Executive Committee she was the deputy speaker of the National Assembly from 1996 to 2004, then the speaker from 2004 to 2008, before a short stint as deputy president of the country, from September 2008 to May 2009, and following the fallout after the ANC’s decision to recall former president Thabo Mbeki.

She now serves outside government as the ANC’s national chairperson.

For much of that period, then, she served under Mbeki and, perhaps because she occupied various positions of power and influence, it is easy to forget that at one time she found herself at the centre of a serious scandal.

But it is worth recalling because — as with so many scandals under Mbeki — it has all the hallmarks of the kind of unaccountable bravado with which the ANC executive would flout the rules and regulations — and abuse their position and influence.

For the ANC accountability has always been about nothing more than a superficial nod in the direction of explanation but its other core component — consequence — is hardly ever ensured. From the arms deal through Eskom, under Mbeki and the ANC, there is always a process, never an outcome; and a disjuncture between technical fault and ethical misconduct. Mbete’s scandal was one of the first to set the trend. Today that sort of attitude is common cause. So, let us take a trip back in time, then, and relive the story.

The Moldenhauer Commission

The incident — which received a substantial amount of coverage at the time, although largely forgotten — concerned widespread corruption in Mpumalanga’s regional driving licence testing centres and unfolded in the months following April 1997.

Investigators revealed that driving licences were being issued in exchange for bribes and it emerged that Mbete — then deputy speaker of Parliament — was one of 44 people improperly to have received a driver’s licence. Those 44, however, were just the tip of an iceberg — the evidence suggested that, in fact, thousands of people had illegally obtained their licences in the province.

For the ANC to establish a commission into anything is rare enough, and so it is easy to imagine the scale of the problem when you consider it was so acute that the then Mpumalanga Premier Matthews Phosa chose to appoint former magistrate Heinrich Moldenhauer to head a commission of inquiry into the matter — the Moldenhauer Commission.

Acute the problem might have been but it was straightforward too and it took a relatively short two months for the commission to release its report on May 27 1997.

It was, however, during the course of the commission’s deliberations that the essence of the Mbete matter were set out for the public.

The case against Mbete

Essentially, Mbete was accused, in collaboration with then-Mpumalanga MEC for safety and security Steve Mabona, of never taken a driver’s licence test but, nevertheless, qualifying for a licence.

The fact that she lived in KwaZulu-Natal and worked in Cape Town also led investigators to question why it was she supposedly took the test in Mpumalanga in the first place.

According to the Sunday Times, her account of events in her testimony to the commission went like this:

Mbete stated that Mabona sent his luxury state-issued car and personal bodyguards to collect her in Johannesburg and take her for a driving test in Delmas on October 1 1996.

Mabona then ordered his traffic chief, Henry Brazer, to travel 350km from Nelspruit to Delmas to test her for both her learner’s and driver’s licences "with all the necessary respect".

Brazer was not at work at the time, as he was sick, but nevertheless got out of his sick bed after a minor heart attack, phoned his brother-in-law, chief traffic inspector Frederick Bezuidenhout, and ordered him to fetch all the necessary forms and stamps from the Kabokweni test centre after hours, and without informing the manager.

To quote the paper: "Mbete argued that she could not remember any particulars of the tests she claimed she completed and admitted that she did not perform the required three-point turn, a handbrake emergency stop, or parallel parking."

Three days later, after testifying, Mbete released a statement in which she said that she regretted "perceptions that she had used her influence to jump the queue", in getting a driver’s licence. But she would admit no guilt.

She said she was "a very busy person with children scattered all over the country, a job in Cape Town and a constituency in KwaZulu-Natal."

"I don’t have time to stand in queues," she argued. "I am not required to stand in queues at airports and things."

Not time to stand in queues, but time enough to endure a 700km road trip.

She said she could not remember details of her driving test in Delmas. "It was basically just driving around town, stopping at robots and moving through busy traffic to see if I could control the vehicle." (There were, however, no traffic lights in Delmas.)

Simultaneously, the Sunday Times undertook an investigation of its own and reported that it had found the following, which contradicted Mbete’s version of events:

• That there was no record of Mbete being tested at the Delmas test centre;

• That the licence was not issued at Delmas, as per Department of Transport regulations, but at Kabokweni in the former Kangwane homeland, 350 km away;?

• That Mbete had no personal or constituency links to Mpumalanga, where the licence was issued;

• That the licence was issued during the night of September 30 1996, before she was allegedly tested at midday in Delmas on 1 October;?

• That Brazer was not a registered or certified testing official and was on sick leave at the time;

• That an internal departmental investigation into alleged irregularities in the issuing of Mbete’s licence was squashed by the head of the Mpumalanga provincial traffic department, Stanley Soko; and

• That a junior traffic officer, John Muller, who reported the irregular issuing of a licence to Mbete, was subsequently suspended by Mabona, who also accused him of being a racist counter-revolutionary, withdrew his state-issue car and stopped his housing subsidy.

It is worth, at this point, saying something about Mabona — who would turn out to be the scapegoat for the whole affair — although that is not to suggest he was not culpable. Indeed, to say he boasted something of a dubious track record is an understatement. He had made something of a career out of flaunting executive privilege.

Questioned about the extent to which he had seemingly abused the right to stay in luxury hotels he would tell the press, he deserved it: "Of course I did … People want to meet you. They want to have dinner costs, saying it was what he deserved: "Of course I did … People want to meet you. They want to have dinner and stuff. So I’d book myself into a hotel (in Johannesburg, near where he lives) to do this, then stay overnight. It’s part of the job".

Today that attitude persists. One is reminded of the ANC’s various defences of the exorbitant amount spent on state homes, luxury hotels and cars — that they are necessities, necessary and appropriate to the stature of any member of the executive.

What the commission found

The commission’s final report found that Mbete’s licence was invalid and she was required to return it to the authorities. But it did not find her in anyway culpable, saying it could find no evidence of a guilty mind on her part.

Mabona, who had earlier said, "I don’t respect Moldenhauer’s commission because it lies to the people", was not so lucky and was forced to resign his position. The commission found he had played a key role in the fraudulent issue of the various licences to Mbete and that he had, "irregularly interfered in anticorruption investigations, misinformed the legislature and provincial cabinet about fraud and corruption issues, misled the commission, unfairly attacked the press and used state funds extravagantly for his hotel and transport needs".

The ANC welcomed the report and issued a statement which said: "The resignation of MEC for safety and security Steve Mabona demonstrates moral courage in the face of public criticism of the licensing procedures," and "we accept, without reservations, the apology and commitment by the deputy parliamentary speaker, Ms Baleka Kgositsile-Mbethe to return the invalid licence to the home affairs department and to subject herself to new licensing tests".

But it would not ask her to resign, nor would it institute any party disciplinary action against her.

Indeed, the ANC would then use its majority to quash a Democratic Party call for a special parliamentary committee to probe Mbete’s conduct and, instead, adopted a motion of confidence tabled by its then chief whip Max Sisulu by 192 votes to 64, with nine abstentions.

In trying to justify the ANC’s decision, ANC MP Lechesa Tsenoli stated: "She was not to know that the test was improperly conducted; she accepted the bona fides of the testing officer. The only questions raised about the deputy speaker’s integrity are raised by those who wish to discredit her for party political gain."

Speaker Frene Ginwala, who after the release of the Moldenhauer report, had released a statement noting that the report did not find Mbete guilty, said in her view "that should have been the end of it", and everyone should now leave the matter to rest.

Two months after the commission, replying to a question in Parliament, Sydney Mufamadi, then minister of safety and security, would say: "It has been established that it is not a normal practice for a person who lives in Kwazulu-Natal and attends Parliament in Cape Town to apply for a driver’s licence in Mpumalanga. Such a practice constitutes a contravention of the Road Traffic Act."

Later, Western Cape attorney-general Frank Kahn also declined to prosecute Mbete.

Lesson not learnt

Almost as if she was trying to keep the whole affair alive later that year — in July — Mbete attempted to have her fraudulent licence listed in an official application for a new identity book, causing another round of public outrage.

The Sowetan wrote in an editorial: "In this case, considering the position of trust that Mbete-Kgositsile occupies, and the continuing damage that this latest scandal inflicts on the image of this office, she should stand down on her own until the matter is cleared. Failing that, those responsible for her occupation of both the deputy speaker’s office and her membership of parliament itself should force her out."

The Natal Witness put it like this:

"If these claims are indeed true, then the deputy speaker has overstayed her welcome in high office, and should be immediately replaced by someone more fit to uphold the dignity of Parliament and the integrity of the office with which she has been entrusted."

Conclusion

Of course, as with the allegation, the facts and the commission, no action was taken and Mbete carried on her merry way — seemingly the victim of a range of people who, unknown to her, had manipulated the system to get for her an illegal learner’s and driver’s licence.

The scandal had everything the ANC needed to practice is particular brand of accountability: an admission that some rules had been violated but a complete disregard for any ethical consideration. Technical inappropriateness was made a substitute for ethical misconduct, the former openly acknowledged, the latter denied fervently and certainly never for a moment acted upon.

Today, that same attitude still exists, well entrenched and promoted and defended as good governance.

At the heart of it all, however, is an ego. Despite holding a position that should be beyond repute, Mbete saw fit — indeed, saw it as appropriate — that she bypass every possible hassle that citizens have to endure when dealing with state bureaucracy.

In her mind, she was different and that was a right her office warranted. And so, just as accountability was denuded of its worth, so that disconnect with the electorate, that insatiable selfish impulse, was evident. And make no mistake, it too was effectively endorsed by the ANC’s failure to act.

Van Onselen is on leave until October 7. A version of this column originally ran on his website, Inside Politics.