Citizens tired of being played for a fool

South African President Cyril Ramaphosa delivers the eulogy during the funeral service of South African anti-apartheid figure Andrew Mlangeni in Soweto, South Africa, on July 29, 2020. – Mlangeni, 95, was the last surviving Rivonia trialist, spending more than quarter of a century imprisoned on Cape Town’s notorious Robben island before his release in 1989. (Photo by Jerome Delay / POOL / AFP)

There’s an old saying in Tennessee — I know it’s in Texas, probably in Tennessee — that says, fool me once, shame on — shame on you. Fool me — you can’t get fooled again.” We have former United States president George W Bush to thank for this misconstrued adage. This is the state that we South Africans find ourselves in regarding some government officials’ attitude and behaviour towards the citizenry; those who have been caught have transgressed the best interests of good governance.

The recent misuse of a state aircraft to carry an ANC delegation to Zimbabwe is a case in point. The delegation was led by ANC secretary general Ace Magashule to discuss the economic, social and political crises in Zimbabwe. July saw anti-government protests in that country, to which the state responded by arresting journalists and opposition figures. This prompted international condemnation and calls for the South African government to intervene.

President Cyril Ramaphosa sent former parliamentary speaker Baleka Mbete and former ministers Sydney Mufamadi and Ngoako Ramatlhodi in August to “engage the government of Zimbabwe and relevant stakeholders to identify possible ways in which South Africa can assist Zimbabwe”. But this was not to be. Zanu-PF did not invite any other organisations to “engage with” the South African delegation. This drew criticism from the opposition Movement for Democratic Change and others who were excluded from the talks.

A second South African delegation saw the ANC and Zanu-PF holding discussions at party to party level. The ANC delegation included senior ANC leaders such as Lindiwe Zulu, the minister of social development. They arrived in Harare on 8 September, having hitched a ride with Minister of Defence and Military Veterans Nosiviwe Mapisa-Nqakula, who was making an official trip to Zimbabwe on a South African Air Force National (SAAF) plane.

The South African National Defence Union defended the minister’s decision to offer her ANC colleagues a lift in a SAAF jet, saying that we are living in unique circumstances under lockdown. The defence department said the ANC delegation’s trip just happened to coincide with the minister’s official trip and there was nothing more to it. But, have people’s expectations of government accountability dropped so low that such explanations suffice? I unpack relevant questions and events regarding the infamous trip to Zimbabwe that require clarity.

ANC accountability

When Magashule was asked if the party had improperly used state resources to conduct ANC business, he promptly responded: “No”. A short while later he changed his tune and said the ANC would pay back the costs incurred. This change of heart maybe him realising that the delegation did indeed abuse state resources. But it was probably an attempt to try to do damage control after the public outcry.

Lindiwe Zulu

In Chapter 6 of the document Guide for Members of the Executive, under the section International Travel, clause 1.3 states: “Ministers and deputy ministers should approach the president in writing to request approval for the intended visit and in the event of a planned official visit abroad, such request should be at least two weeks prior to departure. Such a request, in the case of a minister, should be accompanied by a request for the appointment of an acting minister.”

Did Zulu travel in her personal capacity as an ANC leader or not? Either way she would have had to seek approval from the president to appoint an acting minister, which would have meant her inclusion in the delegation would have been discussed even if she was going in her own capacity. It is strange that her inclusion in the delegation can be written off as a mere oversight.

Nosiviwe Mapisa-Nqakula

Newly appointed Minister of Defence and Military Veterans Nosiviwe Mapisa-Nqakula (R) is sworn in by Chief Justice Mogoeng Mogoeng at Sefako Makgato Presidential Guesthouse on May 30, 2019 in Pretoria, South Africa. (Photo by Phill Magakoe / AFP)

The minister was on an official trip for which the president had given permission and for which she was entitled to use an SAAF aircraft.

Is it not natural to assume she would have had a discussion with either the president or her husband, Charles Nqakula, who is the national security adviser to the president, about the purpose of her visit and who she would ferry to Zimbabwe?

Misuse of an SAAF jet

In Chapter 7 of the government handbook, clause 1.2 states: “Air transport provided by the South African Air Force or any other government department may not be used by members for party political engagements, unless such transport enables the member concerned to fulfil important official engagements before or after the party political engagements.”

This is probably the reason the president found it was “an error of judgment to use the plane to convey a political party delegation”.

It is puzzling that as the president of the ANC, he would not have been kept abreast of the developments regarding the delegation to Zimbabwe.

And it seems fair to assume there would be some liaising between the ANC officials and officials in the presidency regarding the business of international relations.

International travel

South Africa’s ports of entry were closed under Covid-19 regulations, except for those designated by the minister of home affairs to undertake (a) the transportation of fuel cargo and goods; and (b) humanitarian operations, repatriations, evacuations, medical emergencies, movements for diplomatic and international organisations and staff and other exceptions.

It is unclear which ministry gave official permission for the trip. In terms of the lockdown restrictions the ministry of transport authorises travel out of the country. When questioned about authorisation, Transport Minister Fikile Mbalula did not commit to an answer but rather stated that because the delegation travelled in a SAAF jet, it did not need permission because the air force “controls the skies”.

Quarantine restrictions

An ANC statement on 15 September stated: “We profusely humble ourselves where we went wrong during the lockdown and will reimburse the government for the costs incurred on behalf of our delegation. Our delegation is under quarantine in line with our lockdown regulations.” But the Sunday Times reported that Magashule insisted he did not believe the delegation had abused state resources. Is the statement not a hollow apology perpetuating the sense of foolery to which we have become so accustomed?

The report further stated that at least two members of the delegation — Zulu and former minister Nomvula Mokonyane — did not go into the stipulated 10-day self-isolation period required under lockdown regulations after international travel.


Ramaphosa issued Mapisa-Nqakula with a formal reprimand. He imposed a three-month salary sacrifice, starting from 1 November, which will be paid into the Solidarity Fund that supports the country’s response to the pandemic. And he told her to ensure the ANC reimburses the state for the cost of the flight.

Although Ramaphosa’s swift action is commendable, two points require clarity:

l It was a long while before an amount was set for how much the ANC must pay back. It has since been established that the repayment will be R105 545.56. But the question is: if the ANC does pay their share of the cost of the flight, does it mean a political party has subsidised the government’s official business activities?

l Although Mapisa-Nqakula will lose three months’ salary we should not be overly empathetic. The minister will not face the realities so many South Africans have to deal with, including the fear of losing their homes. According to Chapter 8 of the handbook under the section Accommodation, she will still enjoy the benefits of living in her official residence at no cost. The “punishment” for breaking Covid rules is divorced from the deprivations faced by most South Africans.


The president said the minister’s error of judgment was not in keeping with the responsibilities of a minister. He found that Mapisa-Nqakula:

  • Did not “act … in the best interest of good governance”, as required by the code for executive members;
  • Failed to adhere to legal prescripts warranting care in use of state resources; and
  • Acted “in a way that is inconsistent with [her] position” as required by the executives’ guide.

For any society, it is important that officials are held accountable when they transgress the principles of good governance. It is also important that the punishment meted out will act as a deterrent for future transgressions, otherwise the foolery will continue.

South Africans should expect more accountability from government officials. If not, we have ourselves to blame and the correct version of the adage will ring true: “fool me once, shame on you; fool me twice, shame on me”.

This article first appeared in the Mail and Guardian here


Craig Moffat, PhD is the Head of Programme: Governance Delivery and Impact for Good Governance Africa’s National Security Programme. He has more than 17 years of practical experience working for government institutions and multilateral organisations. He was previously employed by the South African Foreign Service, where he worked extensively at identifying and analysing security threats towards South Africa as well as the southern Africa region. Previously, he was the political advisor for the Pretoria Regional Delegation of the International Committee of the Red Cross. He holds a PhD in Political Science from Stellenbosch University.

Governance implications of the Malawi election June 2020 rerun

Opposition Malawi Congress Party (MCP) leader Lazarus Chakwera was declared winner of the June 2020 presidential election re-run with 58.75 percent of the vote according to the electoral commission. PHOTO GIANLUIGI GUERCIA/AFP

Late on Saturday 27 June, 2020, the Malawi Electoral Commission (MEC) Chairperson, Justice Chifundo Kachale, formally announced the election results. Dr Lazarus Chakwera of the Malawi Congress Party (MCP) had won the election with 58.57% of the vote. Chakwera received 2.6 million votes, while incumbent President Arthur Peter Mutharika of the Democratic Progress Party (DPP) received 1.75 million votes (39.4%). The voter turnout was 64.8%. This election comes after a year-long battle for the independence of Malawi’s democratic institutions, and should be seen as an important milestone in the movement towards democratic consolidation on the continent. It also provides a host of potential lessons for both policymakers and activists at the local, regional, and international level, on how to best support developing nations in times of constitutional crisis.

Malawi’s Constitutional Court had struck down the previous election results, citing widespread irregularities, including the use of correction fluid on ballots. The court was harshly critical of the manner in which the MEC handled the May 2019 election, finding the former Chairperson, Jane Ansah, and her commissioners incompetent. The election results triggered months of nationwide protests, calling for new elections and demanding Ansah’s removal. Mutharika responded by appointing Justice Kachale, who vowed the rerun election would be free, fair and credible.

The voter turnout in May 2019 was 77.4%. Mutharika won 38.57% of the vote, against Chakwera’s 35.41%. Chakwera and his Vice President, Dr Saulos Chilima (United Transformation Movement), together achieved more than they did individually in the previous election when they both stood as independent candidates, thus validating their decision to run on the same ballot ticket. Both Chakwera and Mutharika had allied with other parties. Chakwera’s alliance with Chilima was supported by most other opposition parties and was called Tonse Alliance (“all of us” in the local Chichewa language). Mutharika had formed an alliance with Atupele Muluzi (United Democratic Front). The election result divides the country into two with the MCP-UTM alliance gaining a majority in all districts of the northern and central provinces, while the DPP-UDF alliance gained a majority in all districts of the southern province.

In his official announcement, Justice Kachale was careful to clarify that all complaints they had received were handled at the local level of election staff at the polling stations, with the exception of one complaint, which had to be elevated to the national level. The MEC stated it had received dozens of complaints in the days following the election, most from the outgoing DPP government. Their complaints related to instances of violence against party representatives and safety concerns at some of the polling stations. The complaints of violence were considered criminal, and were dispatched to the police for further investigation. The complaints concerning security for party representatives at the polling stations were rejected, citing that security arrangements had been well taken care of by the military and the police.

Outgoing President Mutharika addressed the nation on Saturday afternoon where he implicitly accepted his defeat. However, this did not stop him from characterising the rerun as the worst election in Malawi’s history before urging the people to accept the results of the MEC and the country to move on as one Malawi and one people.


The impact of this election process, both on the region and the continent, should not be downplayed.

It is only the second time on the continent where the judiciary has overturned a presidential election and called for a fresh election. The first was in Kenya in 2017, but saw the opposition boycotting the rerun election. In Malawi, there was full participation of all political parties. Doubts were raised about the timing of the rerun election, and lack of international assistance and international observers. Contrary to these doubts,  the rerun election process appears to have been largely positive, with the MEC ensuring transparency and verification, thus legitimising the outcome.

While there were no international observers present, invitations had been sent but could not be honoured due to tight time constraints. Travel restrictions, quarantine rules and health considerations in connection with the COVID-19 pandemic also impacted the non-attendance of international observers. However, embassies, the UN and international organisations with a presence in the country were accredited as observers. There were also national election observers from about 20 different local stakeholders, including civil society organisations, ecclesiastical organisations, human rights organisations and academia. Most were in agreement that the rerun election process and results were legitimate.

Lessons learned

An important lesson to be taken from this election process is the manner in which the Malawians adopted a “home-grown ownership” of this election process. While the international community had raised concerns about the country’s ability to hold elections in a free, fair, transparent and credible manner, Malawi proved that it could be done successfully. Malawi should be commended for the manner, under very trying circumstances, in which it conducted a credible rerun election.

A major positive long-term effect that the “legal miracle” relating to this rerun election process will have on the region will be the imbedding of the idea that it is possible to trust the judiciary to be professional and independent. An important legal precedent has been set that should find some footing in courts across the region. This important precedent, overriding the May 2019 election results, may act as a catalyst to embolden regional activists, lawyers and democracy advocates in other countries in dealing with issues of poor governance and instances of perceived electoral fraud. The outcome of the court judgment may be indicative of the further consolidation of democracy and good governance in Malawi.

A further lesson from Malawi’s election rerun relates to the finalisation of election reports produced by international observer teams. In hindsight, their observation processes can be criticised as most observers compile their reports based on the formal framework of the election, including the pre- and post-election periods. However, the major contestation arose from the counting process itself. Once the results had been tallied, most observers had either left the country or completed their deployment and had submitted their election observation reports. As a result, the endorsing election observation reports unwittingly created the misconception that the election was held in a free, fair, transparent and credible manner and was used as a justification by Mutharika to endorse his flawed election victory. Thus, it may be argued, the international election observers may have contributed to the polarised situation that followed. With regards to upcoming elections in the region, election observer missions should study the Malawian case carefully to gather important lessons for future election observer deployments.

Dr Craig Moffat is Head of Programme: Governance Delivery and Impact at Good Governance Africa.