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Constitution prevents president from horsing around with the Treasury

It is good news that ANC secretary-general Gwede Mantashe announced on January 30 2017 that the appointment as finance minister of Brian Molefe, formerly CEO of Eskom and a frequenter of a certain Saxonwold shebeen, is not imminent. We must be grateful for small mercies and hopeful that sanity will prevail.

According to legend, the Roman emperor Caligula decided to appoint his horse as proconsul during a particularly trying time. A peek at the history.com website is revealing. It seems that “many scholars reject the notion that Caligula terrorised Rome with his unbridled madness, arguing that his fellow law makers would likely have whisked him out of power for such conduct. So while Caligula might have had an unusual fondness for his horse, it’s unlikely the emperor went so far as to appoint the stallion.”

But what if Caligula actually did plot to create Rome’s first equine official? According to historian Aloys Winterling, author of Caligula: A Biography, insanity is not the only logical explanation for such behaviour. Winterling makes the case that many of the emperor’s wackier stunts, including his treatment of his stallion, Incitatus, were designed to insult and humiliate senators and other elites.

The question on the lips of many patriots and investors in SA is whether, in the fullness of time, Molefe will ascend to the key Cabinet portfolio that the rumour mill has marked out for him and, if so, whether anything can be done in law to prevent it. The law has come a long way since the days of Caligula. Even though our law remains of Roman-Dutch origin, we have a supreme Constitution that entrenches the rule of law and constrains all in positions of power, including the president.

The Cabinet is appointed by the president and its members serve at his pleasure. The president hires and fires ministers at will; he has a discretion to appoint whomsoever he pleases. If his choices do not appeal to the electorate, the remedy is to vote his party out of power. If his choices do not please his party then it may, according to the traditions of the ANC, recall him and replace him with another president elected by the National Assembly sitting as an electoral college under the chairmanship of the chief justice or another judge delegated by him.

All Cabinet members are bound by a code of ethics; they may not undertake any other paid work, act in a manner inconsistent with their office, become involved in conflicts of interest or use their position for improper benefit. The question that arises in relation to the exercise of the presidential discretion to appoint the Cabinet is whether the discretion is constrained in any way. Does he have the power, in other words, to appoint a horse or any part of a horse’s anatomy as a member of his Cabinet?

The answer is a resounding “no!” If the rule of law — and its supremacy in our constitutional dispensation — means anything, it means that the doctrine of legality applies to the decision-making required for appointing Cabinet ministers. This means the decisions so taken have to be rational. An irrational decision would be invalid because it would amount to conduct inconsistent with the Constitution.

To take a purely hypothetical example: assume that a sitting president dismisses a senior and well-respected finance minister whose international reputation and record of service is impeccable, whose work on saving the economy is ongoing and who is available and in sufficiently good health to continue to serve. Assume further that the replacement for this minister is of dubious repute, questionable ethics and quite obviously, on his track record, incapable of acting in the manner expected of Cabinet members as set out in section 96 of the Constitution and summarised above.

Would the decision of the president amount to conduct of the kind that passes the test of rationality? If it does not, a declaration of its invalidity is available to any public interest litigant who feels aggrieved by the decision and is sufficiently concerned to impugn the conduct involved in the decision-making process. The beauty of the supremacy of the Constitution and the rule of law is that they constrain politicians and public servants to the standards set both in the detailed provisions of the Constitution itself and also to observe the standards set by the rule of law.

The fate of Menzi Simelane, the first national director of public prosecutions to be appointed by President Jacob Zuma, is illustrative of the point. While Simelane had no criminal record, his probity and credibility had been the object of adverse findings in the report of the Ginwala commission of inquiry into the fitness for office of Vusi Pikoli, now police ombud in the Western Cape, then predecessor to Simelane. This is how the Constitutional Court viewed the situation when it unanimously concurred in the earlier decision of the Supreme Court of Appeal: “The minister and Mr Simelane accept that the ‘executive’ is ‘constrained by the principle that [it] may exercise no power and perform no function beyond that conferred … by law’ and that the power must not be misconstrued. It is also accepted that the decision must be rationally related to the purpose for which the power was conferred.”

With reference to what emerged in the Ginwala commission, the court observed: “The contradictions [in his evidence] reflect on Mr Simelane’s credibility, integrity and conscientiousness. They were and remain material. Any decision by any person aware of this evidence to ignore it in the decision-making process involving Mr Simelane’s credibility would have been, on the face of it and in the absence of any explanation from that person, not rationally related to the purpose for which the power was conferred….

“The records of the Ginwala commission were, and remain, highly relevant to Mr Simelane’s credibility, honesty, integrity and conscientiousness. The minister’s advice to the president to ignore these matters and to appoint Mr Simelane without more was unfortunate. The material was relevant. The president’s decision to ignore it was of a kind that coloured the rationality of the entire process and thus rendered the ultimate decision irrational.”

The upshot was that Simelane was relieved of his position by the decisions of the two highest courts in the land. It is fervently to be hoped that before he makes any decisions about Molefe, the president has due regard to the contents of the State of Capture report of then public protector Thuli Madonsela, which contains a great deal of information regarding his “credibility, honesty, integrity and conscientiousness”. If that is too much effort, the president can view a few previous episodes of Carte Blanche reports on the Eskom coal deals. The repetition of the mistakes of history, whether they involve Caligula’s horse or Simelane’s appointment, should be avoided.

• Hoffman SC is a director of Accountability Now and author of Confronting the Corrupt

This article was published in Business Day 13 February 2017

One Response to Constitution prevents president from horsing around with the Treasury

  1. Margaret Bass 14 April 2017 at 9:20 am #

    relieved & amazed by these regular hard working South Africans who are
    committed to ensuring a Better SA for ALL.
    Thank You.
    Margaret E.Bass

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