Malaika Mahlatsi4 April 2024 | 12:55

MALAIKA MAHLATSI: Mapisa-Nqakula illustrates how freedom fighters can become perpetrators

There are many examples of people like Mapisa-Nqakula – men and women who fought hard against apartheid, a system built on corruption, only to become the very thing they fought so hard against, writes Malaika Mahlatsi.

MALAIKA MAHLATSI: Mapisa-Nqakula illustrates how freedom fighters can become perpetrators

Former National Assembly Speaker Nosiviwe Mapisa-Nqakula appeared in the Pretoria Magistrates Court on corruption charges on 4 April 2024. Picture: Thabiso Goba/Eyewitness News

On Wednesday, 3 April, the Speaker of the National Assembly, Nosiviwe Mapisa-Nqakula, resigned from her position as well as that of member of parliament (MP), just days after having taken special leave to deal with allegations of corruption.

She is accused of corruption and money laundering dating back to 2016 when she was the Minister of Defence and Military Veterans – a position she held from 2012 to 2021. Prior to this, she had served as the Minister of Correctional Services and the Minister of Home Affairs.

Mapisa-Nqakula is facing one count of money laundering and multiple counts of corruption and fraud for allegedly soliciting and receiving bribes from a service provider while she was the Defence Minister. The bribes are allegedly worth about R4.5 million. It is alleged that another bribe that she had requested from a Defence contractor, worth just over R2 million, had not been paid.

A few weeks ago, law enforcement officers raided her home in Bruma, Johannesburg, seizing some documents and other items. After arguing that authorities hadn’t followed correct procedure in their investigation or properly informed her of the allegations levelled against her, Mapisa-Nqakula approached the courts where she requested an urgent interdict against police arresting her.

She also asked for access to documents outlining evidence that state prosecutors have against her. This application was rejected.

Following her resignation, she handed herself over to the police on the morning of 4 April. She appeared at the Pretoria Magistrate’s Court and was released on bail.

According to reports, the resignation of Mapisa-Nqakula was not necessarily voluntary, but was a prompt from those close to her within the African National Congress (ANC). They insisted that she not put the organisation in a position where it should be defending her, particularly given that this is an election year.

Several opposition parties, as well as the ANC itself, welcomed the resignation. The ANC stated that it valued her “commitment to maintaining the image of our organisation” and that this reflects the principle of organisational renewal. The ANC caucus in parliament also welcomed the resignation, stating that it is aimed at preserving and protecting the integrity of parliament – an argument that she too made in her own resignation statement.

As a South African citizen, I too welcome the resignation of Mapisa-Nqakula. But in doing so, I cannot help but be saddened by the painful reality that she joins the growing list of revolutionaries who have turned into perpetrators of the worst kind.

Mapisa-Nqakula dedicated most of her life to the service of South Africa and its people. She trained as an educator and during the apartheid era was involved in youth and community development in the Eastern Cape, a province that bore the brunt of colonial brutality.

It was also there that she played an instrumental role in the founding of the East London Domestic Workers Association. The organisation played an instrumental role in organising domestic workers in the fight not only for better working conditions and a living wage, but in addressing issues of racialised and gendered discrimination in the labour market broadly.

She would later go on to join Umkhonto weSizwe, the military wing of the ANC. The decision to do this, as a young person and a woman, reflects the selflessness that once defined Mapisa-Nqakula. Committed to the advancement and empowerment of women, she went on to become the national organiser of the ANC Women’s League and was subsequently elected as its secretary general, the engine of the organisation.

Between 2003 and 2008, she would be elected as president of the league. At the dawn of democracy, she became an MP and went on to serve under all administrations in the new dispensation, in various positions including chair of a portfolio committee and Deputy Minister. She served in the cabinets of four presidents – Thabo Mbeki, Kgalema Motlanthe, Jacob Zuma and Cyril Ramaphosa. In all these roles, she led some very important achievements that have strengthened democracy in South Africa.

Two examples of such interventions are worth noting. The first is the implementation of the Civil Unions Act (Act 17 of 2006) which legalised same-sex marriage – making South Africa the fifth country in the world to do so. While it was mainly the efforts of civil society organisations which fought hard for this right, and supported the case at the Constitutional Court, the Department of Home Affairs, led by Mapisa-Nqakula, was equally committed to this pursuit. The minister herself supported this struggle.

The second intervention pertains to immigrants. Mapisa-Nqakula was very progressive in her stance on the immigrants question in South Africa – going as far as to offer protection for immigrants during waves of xenophobic violence. She has also publicly stated her opposition to stricter border control, arguing instead for free movement as an essential requirement for integration and economic development.

In 2009, following the Zimbabwean election violence that saw millions of Zimbabweans fleeing to the diaspora, her department exempted all citizens of the said country from visa requirements and granted them special residence permits to stay and work in South Africa. She did remarkable work in other departments that she led, including her significant attempts at bringing stability to the Department of Correctional Services. 

Mapisa-Nqakula’s Damascene conversion began in the Department of Defence and Military Veterans, where she became involved in unethical conduct including using state resources for organisational matters, resulting in a reprimand by the president. But even so, she had started in the department on a good note, reversing questionable multi-million rand contracts that were entered into by her predecessor, arguing that they were not compliant with the Public Finance Management Act (PMFA). This was the Mapisa-Nqakula who many of us had come to know – an ethical, strict and fair leader.

The person who would later transport an ANC delegation to Harare with a military aircraft, who would breach the Immigration Act to provide support a woman with whom she had personal relations, who would fail dismally at counteracting the worst violent incident the country has seen since apartheid (the July 2021 riots) and who now faces serious criminal charges, could be mistaken for an imposter and a stranger. But it’s not. It’s the same Nosiviwe Mapisa-Nqakula. 

There are many examples of people like Mapisa-Nqakula – men and women who fought hard against apartheid, a system built on corruption, only to become the very thing they fought so hard against. It has happened with countless struggle heroes across the continent. In many ways, it’s exactly what is happening in Israel – a country built for people escaping persecution which is now a perpetrator of genocide.

Mapisa-Nqakula was a revolutionary. She was a principled woman who fought hard to strengthen democratic institutions in a country still reeling from the effects of its amoral past.

That this is the same person who must now stand before a court to face charges of corruption and money laundering is a tragedy of biblical proportions, and a sobering reminder to all of us that even the greatest revolutionaries are not impenetrable by forces of greed.

Power does truly corrupt, and when the power is absolute, it corrupts absolutely.

Malaika is a Geographer and researcher at the Institute for Pan African Thought and Conversation. She’s a PhD candidate at the University of Bayreuth in Germany.