THE chairwoman of the Electoral Commission of South Africa (IEC), Pansy Tlakula, is guilty of misconduct and should be removed from office, the Electoral Court, sitting in Johannesburg, ruled on Wednesday.
In a scathing judgment, the court found that not only had Ms Tlakula deliberately broken the law, she had also tried to escape liability and blamed others for her failings.
The court recommended that a committee of the National Assembly find that Ms Tlakula committed "misconduct warranting her removal from office".
Wednesday’s ruling was the first step in Ms Tlakula’s possible removal from office. However, she can only be removed by President Jacob Zuma after a resolution by the National Assembly calling for this.
Five political parties — the United Democratic Movement, the African Christian Democratic Party, Agang SA, the Congress of the People and the Economic Freedom Fighters — had asked the court to make the recommendation after Public Protector Thuli Madonsela found Ms Tlakula guilty of improper conduct and maladministration.
The findings, in a report last year, related to a "grossly irregular" procurement process that the advocate presided over for the leasing of the commission’s premises in Centurion in 2009, when she was chief electoral officer. The parties argued that she had compromised the IEC’s credibility because of her "undisclosed and unmanaged conflict of interest" in the lease, which was awarded to Abland — a firm in which her business partner, prominent African National Congress (ANC) politician Thaba Mufamadi, had a stake.
In his judgment on Wednesday, Judge Lotter Wepener found that Ms Tlakula’s misconduct had been established "on a balance of probabilities".
He said: "Having deliberately embarked upon an attenuated tender process, (Ms Tlakula) chose not to abide by the requirements of the law.… Her actions in this regard are unlawful and … constitute misconduct." This, he said, was followed by a "plethora of unlawful actions" and Ms Tlakula’s failure to take responsibility for her wrongdoing.
"(Ms Tlakula’s) continued refusal to be accountable for her actions shows her failure to appreciate her wrongful conduct," the court found.
The court ruled that Ms Tlakula compromised the integrity and independence of the IEC and that her "personal involvement seems to have clouded her judgment and her ability to act objectively".
"It is conduct which renders her unsuitable for the office of a commissioner and destructive of the very values of the commission," the court held. Judge Wepener also described Ms Tlakula’s account that she had made an "honest mistake" as a "version of convenience".
"The court finds that (Ms Tlakula) is offering excuses rather than justification for her unlawful conduct," Judge Wepener said.
One of Ms Tlakula’s lawyers, Ehi Enabor, said the legal team was "studying" the judgment and would issue a statement later.
Ben Winks, on behalf of the political parties, welcomed the ruling: "Given that (Ms Tlakula) is the head of a vital constitutional institution, who refused to step down or step aside in the national interest, this court process was necessary to protect the credibility, integrity, impartiality and independence of the Electoral Commission," Mr Winks said.
ANC spokesman Zizi Kodwa said the party had noted the judgment.