13 June 2002

South Africa: Is Masetlha Pawn in Political Game?


Johannesburg — IS THE chess game that has been playing itself out at the home affairs department now a thing of the past with the forthcoming departure of its most senior official, Billy Masetlha?

If you believe what Masetlha has been saying, the answer has to be no. The former SA Secret Service director-general, whose contentious contract as home affairs directorgeneral expires next Thursday, says the savage departmental political infighting will go on as long as "the dinosaurs" advising minister Mangosuthu Buthelezi stay.

Top dinosaur, to use Masetlha's words, would presumably be Buthelezi's trusted adviser, Mario Ambrosini, who has had an equally controversial tenure in the department. Ambrosini has often been at the centre of a number of stand-offs between Buthelezi and the African National Congress (ANC).

The ANC, it appears, is not willing to leave immigration issues in the hands of an influential foreigner who enjoys the ear of the minister.

Also, whites who played a key role in the Inkatha Freedom Party (IFP) in the 1980s and early 1990s like Phillip Powell, Ambrosini and Walter Felgate (now an ANC MP after jilting Buthelezi's party) have always aroused the suspicion of ANC leaders.

The ANC has been of the belief that these individuals were ill-advising Buthelezi and complicating the unity of the two parties.

So in a nutshell, Masetlha's dire predictions of the future of the home affairs department has to do more with issues of trust between Buthelezi and the ANC rather than just personality differences between minister and director-general.

The ANC has in the past tried to isolate Ambrosini an Italian citizen from Buthelezi. It will be recalled that, in the 1990s, the cabinet sought to stop the appointment of foreigners as special advisers to ministers and government departments. The decision was reversed after Buthelezi threatened to quit government over Ambrosini's case.

Given such mistrust between the ANC and the IFP, it is hardly likely that Masetlha has been acting on his own for if he were, then the logical development is that he would have long been fired.

Masetlha and Buthelezi have not gotten along from the moment the former joined the department in December 1999. The minister has consistently questioned the validity of Masetlha's employment contract and asked President Thabo Mbeki for help, presumably to make the director-general go away.

Masetlha is not the first directorgeneral, though, to encounter problems with his principal. Flare-ups between Geraldine Fraser-Moleketi and Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma and their directors-general have been so bad the officials have ended up quitting the public service.

But what is different about Masetlha and Buthelezi is the way the underlying political dynamics have interplayed with the personalities involved. Masetlha is a top ANC functionary while Buthelezi is IFP leader. The two parties, with a history of conflict, are in a co-operation agreement designed to ensure peace between their supporters, particularly in KwaZulu-Natal.

Thus, any envisaged move to resolve the problems between Buthelezi and Masetlha needed to have taken this political imperative into consideration. It has always been apparent for some time that a solution to the problem would mean one of the two headstrong individuals giving way .

Buthelezi and Masetlha have never hesitated to take public pot shots at each other, to the detriment of the department's reputation.

Recently Buthelezi embarrassed Masetlha by overruling the latter's decision to declare Durban Roodepoort Deep CE Mark WellesleyWood a prohibited person in SA , as he did not have a work permit.

Masetlha retaliated by accusing his principal of "using his political clout to condone the violation of legal and administrative procedures" and of setting a bad precedent.

Buthelezi has also released a dossier that contained more than 60 complaints against Masetlha. These complaints included an accusation of insubordination.

One hopes that, with the departure of Masetlha, all this will now be water under the bridge. With a new director-general to be appointed, it would be pointless to continue having the tit-for-tat fights. But if Buthelezi does not have a say on the appointment of the new directorgeneral, then the war continues.

Presumably, the ANC will want him to give something in return to have a say. Will he be willing to let go of his adviser? Highly unlikely.

Molebeledi is Political Editor.

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