When Jacques Pauw published a new book accusing South African President Jacob Zuma of failing to declare all his income and a spy unit of squandering taxpayer money, the State Security Agency moved with unusual speed — not against the alleged wrongdoers, but the author.
The agency’s decision to file criminal charges this month, accusing Pauw of possessing classified information, prompted strong public support for the investigative journalist who won fame reporting on apartheid-era hit squads. His new tome, The President’s Keepers, instantly became a local bestseller and was widely circulated on social media after the authorities demanded that its sales be stopped. Pauw and his publishers deny they did anything illegal.
The quick action against Pauw contrasts with the failure to investigate allegations of wrongdoing by Zuma and his allies. While reports by the nation’s auditor-general and graft ombudsman point to a rampant misuse of state funds, officials are rarely held to account. Intelligence and prosecuting agencies and police have been hobbled because they’re run by Zuma appointees, according to Gareth Newham, head of the Institute for Security Studies’ governance, crime and justice unit.
“The vast resources of the state are not effectively being used to fight the real crimes that are affecting people,” Newham said by phone from Johannesburg. “They haven’t done anything to try and prevent this massive theft of billions of rand of taxpayers’ money from state-owned enterprises and other government departments, but they suddenly jump up and act against a journalist who has written a book.”
Pauw alleges that Zuma failed to file tax returns, received an undeclared salary from a security company for at least four months after he became president and may owe more than R60 million ($4.2 million) in taxes and penalties because he personally benefited from a state-funded upgrade to his private home in Nkandla in the eastern KwaZulu-Natal province.
Members of the State Security Agency also spent as much as R1 billion of taxpayer funds over three years on cars, property and equipment for a program known as the Principal Agent Network, yet produced nothing, Pauw wrote.
Zuma, who’s due to step down as leader of the ruling African National Congress next month, denied any wrongdoing and said he was being targeted by a smear campaign.
“President Zuma has declared to the relevant authorities all income received and allegations contained in the reports are misleading,” the Presidency said in a statement. “The tax matters of the president are in order. The president has also not received any information related to taxes linked to the Nkandla upgrades as alleged by the media.”
The South African National Editors Forum condemned the decision to file charges against Pauw and said they appeared to be aimed at forcing him to disclose his sources.
“This is an ominous sign,” said Adriaan Basson, a member of the forum’s executive committee. “We don’t say journalists are above scrutiny or above the law, but we believe that just on a cursory reading of the book there are so many more important matters that justify the involvement of the law enforcement agencies. We are surprised that this is the first case they are going after.”
A special investigative unit known as The Hawks said it’s examining the case filed against Pauw and hasn’t yet decided whether he should be prosecuted.
It would be mistake if the authorities decide to pursue the case, according to Pierre de Vos, a law professor at the University of Cape Town.
“A prosecution would require the proof that the book contains genuine information leaked from the South African Revenue Service and the State Security Agency, thus confirming the veracity of the allegations in the book,” De Vos wrote on his blog. “This would be catastrophic for President Jacob Zuma as it would confirm that he is guilty of serious wrongdoing and abuse of power.”
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