Driving Ms Mbete: Part 2
by The Editor
FEATURE: Having set out the details of former Speaker Baleka Mbete’s fraudulent driver’s licence in Part 1 of this retrospective, today we look at how the press responded at the time. The various editorial comments are helpful not only because they gives a sense of the outrage but because they capture nicely the various ethical considerations at play, which are perhaps lost in a factual account of the incident and, certainly, were lost on the ANC at the time.
Driving Ms Mbete: Part 2
The 1997 scandal surrounding then-deputy speaker Baleka Mbete and her fraudulent driver’s licence played itself out over a six month period and went through a number of distinct phases.
There was the initial scandal, which broke in April, then the Moldenhauer Commission and Mbete’s testimony before it in May. Then, at the end of May, the Commission tabled its report. I set those out in Part 1 of this series. Today, by way of supplementing that story with some more background, I have identifed some of the key responses from the press at the time (using editorial comment exclusively).
Each development was followed by a glut of editorial comment. It all makes for interesting reading, if only to give a sense of the outrage at the time and, importantly, to set out the various ethical implications of her behaviour which, much like the legal implications, were overlooked, downplayed or deliberately ignored by the ANC.
What the Press Said
1. “Too busy” to queue
The news that Mbete was being investigated, along with 43 other people, for allegedly receiving a false driver’s licence from an Mpumalanga testing centre broke in April 1997 and was soon followed by Mbete’s infamous explanation that she was “too busy” to stand in queues. On 14, 15, 16 and 27 April six newspaper carried editorials on her comment. Here are the key extracts:
The Star: It just won’t wash
That an MEC should send a car and bodyguards from Nelspruit to fetch her in Johannesburg and then drive back to Delmas for the test is, to put it mildly, amazingly generous. That he should also send his traffic director to Delmas from Nelspruit to conduct the test takes the breath away.
The Pretoria News: Licence to special treatment
Most economically active people are no different from Ms Kgositsile: very busy, with no time to waste in queues. It is the tale of the 90s. The extraordinary “little facilitation” smacks of elitism which was unwelcome then and remains unwelcome now.
The Natal Witness: Have wheels, will drive
More objectionable [than the validity of her licence], however, is the assumption by Kgositsile that it is perfectly acceptable for someone in her position to demand that the licensing authorities should make a special plan for her own convenience, because, as she claims, she is a busy person and doesn’t have the time to stand in queues.
Business Day: Back to the future
What about special checkout counters at supermarkets, available only to those with Parliament’s gold identity cards? Or dedicated stores like those which ensured the eastern bloc’s nomenklatura rarely went wanting for anything? How about a separate cellphone network to avoid those nasty busy signals? Some senior ministers, their deputies, and a range of generals already have their own aircraft and airports, but why limit the facility to them?
Die Burger/Volksblad: Verhewenes
Her conduct illustrates the ANC’s broader outlook: that government officials are above the rules, laws and regulations that are applicable to ordinary citizens. This has serious implications, not only for the separation of the law and the state on which our democratic order is founded but also for clean administration.
City Press: No licence to abuse system
If Kgositsile is lying, not only should she lose her job and position in the ANC but it should be a serious warning to people in similar positions not to take advantage of their positions. She claims she is too busy to go and stand in a line for a drivers licence. This is unacceptable and must be dismissed with the contempt it deserves.
2. A public apology
Appointed by Mpumalanga Premier Mathews Phosa to look into the scandal, the Moldenhauer Commission only made headlines in a really big way when Mbete testified before it, in early May. She used the occasion to provide a weak and unconvincing account of events and to issue an apology – well that is how the media interpreted it. In fact, what she really said was that she wished to “express my regret” insofar as it may have appeared she had used her position to jump the queue. On 5, 7, 8 and 9 May five papers took up her public regret in their editorial columns:
The Financial Mail: Time to surrender suspect licence
Like Caesar’s wife, the Deputy Speaker must be above suspicion…. [Mbete’s] statement reads as if it was drafted by an apologist for Mbete-Kgositsile, not written by a high-ranking and, until now, well-regarded parliamentarian regretful over an ill-considered action. It is only a partial retraction – or a more judiciously worded version – of her initial reaction to press reports about the circumstances in which the licence was issued.
The Daily News: Puzzling apology
The apology by Baleka Mbete-Kgositsile, Deputy Speaker of the National Assembly, for “jumping the queue” and “fast-tracking” procedure in getting a driver’s licence begs the question: for what is she apologising? Are “jumping the queue” and “fast tracking” euphemisms for obtaining a licence without undergoing a test? Does this mean allegations are correct that she improperly obtained a licence from the Mpumalanga government? If that is so, she – and those who issued the licence – should be prosecuted for a serious offence.
Ms Mbete-Kgositsile denies that she has apologised. In a fax to the Citizen [she] says, “The headline, Deputy Speaker apologises over licence, is in no way substantiated in the Sapa story published beneath it. I expressed my regrets about the impression created through media reports. It is very different from an apology, as is obvious from any normal understanding of language”.
Cape Times: Deputy Speaker sets an example
The decision by the Deputy Speaker of the National Assembly Ms Baleka Mbete-Kgositsile to express regret over jumping the queue to gain a driver’s licence is to be heartily welcomed. It is a brave and correct step which will hopefully set a precedent among the power elite in the new South Africa.
Star: And now step down
Deputy Speaker Baleka Mbete-Kgositsile’s belated apology about jumping the queue and using her official position to get a driver’s licence just don’t wash…Her conduct was flagrantly unethical and she should be relieved of her duties as deputy speaker… The ANC promised the electorate clean government. Can it justify keeping her on as deputy speaker?
3. The Moldehauer Commission
By late May the commission had issued its report, which said nothing about Mbete’s conduct or explanation, only that she should return her licence. South Africa’s editors picked up where they had left off earlier that month and, on 25, 26, 27, 28 and 29 May, seven papers ran editorials on the report’s findings and the implications for Mbete specifically.
The Sunday Times: Stopping South Africa’s wannabe Mobutus
In the words of President Nelson Mandela: “There is always a danger that when there is no opposition, the governing party can become too arrogant – too confident of itself… These officials [Mbete and Mabona] are South Africa’s own little ‘Mobutus’ in the making. Were it not for the existence of independent authorities like the auditor general’s office and courageous commissions of enquiry, they would have blossomed into the real thing, puffed up and behaving like untouchables while their countrymen suffer around them.
Pretoria News: Time for an Asmal probe
The commission, apart from recommending that her licence be revoked, has made no findings on Ms Mbete-Kgositsile. We suggest that Professor Asmal, as head of parliament’s ethics watchdog, investigates whether she acted improperly or abused her position. Questions remain unanswered, and inconsistencies linger.
EP Herald: Above reproach?
The Speaker of the National Assembly is a person who must be above approach… What holds good for the Speaker, holds good for the deputy too. And that is why all South Africans concerned for the reputation of our new system of government will be deeply concerned at the public doubts voiced over Deputy Speaker Baleka Mbete-Kgositsile…
City Press: Phosa has sent out a strong signal
[Mathews Phosa] must also be praised for re-voking Kgositsile-Mbete’s licence. This too must send a message to other ANC leaders that they are not above the law. President Mandela must also act against Kgositsile-Mbete, not only for obtaining an unauthorised licence but for lying before the commission. She was not convincing in her testimony and was obviously not telling the truth when she said she could not remember questions put to her.
Citizen: Sack her
We do not know why the Deputy Speaker of the National Assembly, Ms Baleka Mbete-Kgositsile, has not resigned. She was issued with a learner’s and a driver’s licence in the most questionable of circumstances…. Deputy President Thabo Mbeki is being sent a copy of the Moldenhauer report for possible steps against Ms Mbete-Kgositsile. If she does not resign of her own free will, he should fire her, since her involvement in this sorry business is unbecoming of a person in her position.
Business Day: Licence for wrongdoing?
As deputy speaker, Kgositsile must command the respect of all parliamentarians, for this reason, and because of its often-stated commitment to open government, the ANC should support a DP proposal that a parliamentary committee investigate her behaviour.
Beeld: Vals rybewyse
Ms Baleka Mbete-Kgositsile, the deputy speaker in parliament and the beneficiary of a fraudulent driver’s licence has already made an apology and undertaken to hand over her illegal licence. She says she is a wiser person after this episode. One would hope so. In most other democracies, the public would be happy with nothing less than her resignation.
There were other editorials on other aspects of the Moldenhauer Commission which have not been listed here, but of those that dealt with the then-deputy speaker and her role in the whole affair, the above list is comprehensive.
All-in-all, across all four stages of the scandal, some seven newspapers, including the Daily News, the Citizen, the Star, the Sunday Times, the City Press, the Sowetan and the Natal Witness all called for her resignation or removal from office. A number of other papers called for further investigation into her conduct.
Not a single newspaper came out in support of the deputy speaker. (The Cape Times welcomed her apology – although it wasn’t really one.)
It is sometimes worth reducing events to their simplest form, to best illustrate the problem that underlies a development or trend.
Consider this: It emerges that the deputy speaker is one of 44 people fraudulently to have received a driver’s licence. A commission of enquiry is set up. In her testimony, the deputy speaker gives a factually inconsistent and highly dubious account of events. The commission’s report makes no finding on the deputy speaker’s testimony and only requests that she return her licence. She, by her own admission, refuses properly to apologise. The ANC refuses to investigate further and, seven years later, she is appointed Speaker. Eleven years later, Deputy President.
Whether or not the incident and her part in it were ever enough to disqualify her from those two positions will never be known – it was never properly interrogated. But more important than the legal or technical grounds on which her misconduct might have been judged, was its ethical nature. Indeed, it was on this basis – that a person of such high office should be beyond reproach – that most newspapers made their call for her to be fired.
In all of this, those editorials outlined above offer us a series of windows back to look back at a incident now diluted by time – a reminder that, while the ANC might have whitewashed her conduct, history holds a different record. And it is worth remembering the questions it asks were never properly answered.
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