Arms Scandal Smouldered Too Long
The arms deal saga, culminating now in a bitter political conflict that threatens to tear apart the government, the country and some of our most important institutions, is a classic example of inept crisis management.
The blunder goes right back to the beginning, to the government's failure to clear up all questionable aspects of the arms deal as swiftly and comprehensively as possible. Instead it has weaved and ducked.
The result is a mess. The arms deal has became a suppurating sore almost from the day it was signed in November 1999.
There are two basic rules of damage control any government or private sector body should follow.
The first is to recognise quickly that there is a problem. This is often the most difficult - sometimes because the issue is not immediately clear, but more often because one's immediate instinct is to become defensive, hoping to blur the issue until it blows over.
That leads to delay, and the longer the delay the more positions become entrenched and the more difficult it becomes to deal with the issue without appearing to back down.
Remember the old adage, if you find yourself in a hole, the first thing you must do is to stop digging.
The second key step is to move quickly to reveal all the facts yourself, however damaging they may be. The aim must be to end the crisis in one fell swoop, taking all the pain at once and bringing the matter to a close. The public memory is short and the issue will soon fade into history.
The important thing is to leave nothing for the media to dig up later, for that will revive the scandal and suggest an attempted cover-up.
Not surprisingly, given their repeated exposure to the blunders of others, journalists seem to have a better understanding of how to handle these things. Nine years after The Washington Post played the lead role in exposing the Watergate scandal, the newspaper found itself in an embarrassing scandal of its own.
A talented reporter, Janet Cook, won the Pulitzer Prize for a poignant story about an eight-year-old heroin addict named Jimmy who was regularly shot up by his mother's live-in lover. But no sooner had Cook won the coveted prize than her story was revealed to be completely fictitious.
The embarrassment was extreme. "It hit us like a kamikaze bomb," executive editor Ben Bradlee said later. But Bradlee did not resort to bluster or obfuscation.
"Thanks to Watergate," he writes in his autobiography, "I had learnt a vitally important lesson: the truth is the best defence and the whole truth is the very best defence."
Bradlee assigned the newspaper's ombudsman to write a complete exposure of how the fraudulent journalist had managed to deceive all the paper's editorial defences and which editors were to blame. The issue quickly disappeared from the news.
Our government has done nothing like that. It first hassled Judge Willem Heath's Special Investigation Unit, preventing it from an investigation into the arms issue, then pressurised parliament's watchdog Public Accounts Committee (Scopa) to the point where its chairman, Gavin Woods, and the ANC's own Andrew Feinstein quit in despair.
Eventually a joint investigating team consisting of the Public Protector, the National Directorate of Public Prosecutions and the Auditor-General, produced a report, which was heavily criticised by opposition parties in parliament.
Now the highly successful Scorpions investigation unit, headed by the Director of Prosecutions, Bulelani Ngcuka, is caught up in an unseemly conflict with Deputy President Jacob Zuma, while the latter's financial manager, Schabir Shaik, faces charges of corruption which implicate Zuma.
Knowing the principal figures involved, I can sympathise with them all. Zuma is the kind of man I would trust with my life. Without going into the merits of any of the cases now before court, I can see how he got caught up in a web of entanglements.
He spent many years in prison, then even more in exile. In neither situation did he have any personal finances to manage: ANC exiles were controlled, managed, fed, clothed and generally kept by the organisation.
On his return, Zuma would have faced the awesome business of having to manage his own personal finances for the first time in his life - on the meagre salary of a member of the provincial administration of KwaZulu-Natal. An impossible task, I reckon, given the social and other obligations facing someone of his stature.
So it seems he turned to his friend Shaik, with whom he had been associated in the underground world of the resistance movement, to manage his financial affairs. Of course it is always tricky for a high-profile politician to become financially involved with a private entrepreneur, and no doubt someone destined to become deputy president should have realised that. But I can understand how it happened.
Equally, I know Ngcuka as a man with a courageous record as a human rights lawyer during the struggle of the 1980s when he was detained and tortured by the security forces. After a long, difficult investigation, he is confronted with evidence that he believes is sufficient to charge Zuma's financial manager, Shaik. The charge sheet implicates Zuma.
What does Ngcuka do about this? On the one hand, as head of the country's top investigative unit, he must make it clear no-one is above the law. On the other hand, if you are going to take the deputy president to court on a charge of corruption, you had better be damn sure you are going to win.
The American Constitution grants immunity from prosecution to both the president and the vice-president. There is no such equivalent in our law, but the United States example surely illustrates the sensitivity of such a step.
Can you imagine what would happen to Ngcuka and the Scorpions if he were to charge the deputy president and lose - perhaps because of a missing piece of technical evidence?
So consider Ngcuka's dilemma. With details of the charges against Shaik about to become public, a failure to prosecute Zuma would lead to accusations that he had succumbed to political pressure. But to charge the deputy president and fail would be fatal for him and his unit.
So I reckon Ngcuka tried to cover both bases, saying there was a prima facie case against the deputy president but he was not confident the case was winnable and so he was not going to press charges at this stage.
That of course left Zuma twisting in the wind - publicly accused but unable to defend himself. At least not in court, although he can have his day in parliament any time he wishes to explain everything.
But my main point is that the whole issue should never have been allowed to reach this destructive stage. It should have been cleared up years ago. Good damage control is part of good governance.
Sparks is a veteran journalist and political commentator.
With acknowledgements to Allister Sparks and the Cape Times.