Pansy Tlakula: A lost chance for redemption

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Pansy Tlakula’s fight to stay in her job as head of the Independent Electoral Commission (IEC) has received a deathblow: the highest court in the land, the Constitutional Court, dismissed it on Wednesday

Public protector Thuli Madonsela found in August 2013 that Tlakula flouted procurement regulations in securing a R320-millon lease for the IEC’s head office in Centurion and held an “unmanaged conflict of interest” as a result of her and business associate Thaba Mufamadi’s separate and undisclosed business relationship. 

On June 18 2014, Electoral Court judge Lotter Wepener found Tlakula’s misconduct warranted her removal from office after the court was approached by a number of small parties hoping to remove Tlakula ahead of the elections, but who were content with the action that followed afterwards. 

Tlakula could have done the honourable thing and resigned at any point in the events that followed the botched leasing deal, from 2010 onwards. She could have stepped down when the murmurs first emerged about the deal in newspapers, or when internal complaints began among her staff that led to leaks to the United Democratic Movement’s Bantu Holomisa, who turned to the public protector. 

But sources in the IEC tell me she didn’t even bother informing her colleagues of the impending newspaper report that first blew the lid on the scandal, despite knowing of its release and how it would drag her organisation’s previously impeccable name through the mud. They were ill equipped to deal with the fall-out that rapidly followed.

She could have resigned when the issue reached a critical mass with the release of the public protector’s report in 2013, which in itself was delayed. 

But instead she kicked up her fight a notch, digging in her heels and alienating her fellow commissioners entirely by hiring her own lawyers and threatening to take the report on judicial review.  

Or she could have called it quits when a forensic audit commissioned by treasury into the matter was released in March this year and largely confirmed Madonsela’s findings

Complicated legal wrangle
Instead, a protracted process ensued, involving Parliament, treasury and the electoral and constitutional courts. It was a necessarily complicated legal wrangle given the protections on Tlakula’s office as a chapter nine institution, protected by the Constitution against undue influence from the government. She fought every step of the way and allegedly employed a number of legal delaying tactics to ensure she would stay in place for the May 2014 elections.   

Which brings me to why this is all such a damn shame. 

Tlakula is a remarkable woman. She has earned the respect of both the ruling ANC and the opposition Democratic Alliance for being fair and even-handed in the extremely sensitive and tricky business of running elections. That in itself is a feat. The parties even united along with a few others to try and protect Tlakula and the stability of the IEC ahead of the May elections. 

She inherited an electoral body from Brigalia Bam and Judge Johann Kriegler that had fought for its resources and independence and won: and which represented the best that the South Africa had to offer. The IEC has won international awards for its work, and helps other countries run free and fair elections.  

She had a formidable legacy in place. The discrepancies on the report were purely financial and procedural and had nothing to do with the fairness of election outcomes. But they cast a pall over an institution that can afford no hint of wrong-doing. 

Knowing this, she should have stated her case as to why she believed she had done nothing wrong, but resigned anyway to prove that her respect for South Africa and its institutions exceeded her desire to hang on to power. 

Instead of fighting the legal processes that were bound to follow, she should have fought for us, for our fragile democracy, and for the one good organisation at the heart of it we all loved and respected. 

Like Pallo Jordan, and perhaps even more so, she would have emerged with an even stronger reputation. 

Instead she will leave the IEC in a worse condition than she found it, and herself and her reputation even more impoverished. 

Forget the botched lease deal. This is the story of the botched career of a woman who could have been great, but who turned down every opportunity to redeem herself.