By Stef Terblanche of the Intelligence Bulletin
It hasn’t been a good fortnight for South Africa’s President Jacob Zuma. Despite his best efforts it seems unlikely that the Nkandla scandal will go away and there are added troubles to give him sleepless nights.
The question of how much longer can Pres. Zuma can dodge the bullet, or how much longer the ruling African National Congress can still afford him is back on the agenda.
True to form Pres. Zuma last week tried to put as much distance as possible between himself and his many troubles by jetting off to Angola for a conference of minor importance. The week before he had wined and dined in Washington at the US-Africa Leaders’ Summit.
After his re-inauguration as president earlier this year he also all but disappeared from the public eye for several weeks, only to surface at a world cup soccer match and a BRICS conference in Brazil. Back home all sorts of labour, economic and political issues required attention.
Even so, in just the space of the past fortnight –
• He unleashed a storm of criticism and even possible legal action when he finally submitted his response to the Public Protector’s report on the R246-million state-funded upgrade on his private home at Nkandla;
• Was busy losing his Supreme Court of Appeal battle to prevent the release to the opposition Democratic Alliance (DA) by the National Prosecuting Authority (NPA) of the so-called “spy tapes” that were used to justify the dropping of arms deal-related corruption charges against him;
• Seemed also to have lost round one of the battle of current NPA chief Mxolisi Nxasana to prevent the President from firing him apparently because of Nxasana’s reopening of fraud and corruption charges against suspended crime intelligence boss Richard Mdluli;
• Journalist Mzilikazi wa Afrika’s book appeared with allegations of Zuma’s hidden hand in smearing then NPA boss Bulelani Ngcuka as an “apartheid spy” in order to throw off course the NPA’s investigation – and then seemingly imminent prosecution – of Zuma’s involvement in arms deal corruption;
• Coinciding with the Washington US-Africa summit, global research company Gallup released the results of its 2013 survey of the job performance of 26 Sub-Saharan African presidents in which Zuma fared second worst with even Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe outperforming him; and
• Former struggle stalwart and Constitutional Court Justice Zak Yacoob indicated he may have ruled differently in the rape trial in which Zuma was acquitted several years ago as he would have disregarded evidence of the sexual history of Zuma’s accuser.
If Mr. Zuma were to learn anything from the events of the past fortnight it would be that, just like the corrupt arms deal, the Nkandla scandal is unlikely to go away unless he confronts it full on and transparently instead of attempting to sweep it under the carpet – a perception widely held.
In terms of her constitutional mandate, Public Protector Thuli Madonsela had given Zuma 14 days to respond in Parliament to her report. Instead Zuma responded to her report 148 days later only after initiating an investigation of his own.
And, when he did finally respond last week, it was submitted to Parliament in his absence from the country and while Parliament was in recess. It also did not deal exclusively with Madonsela’s report as was required originally, but conflated her report with two others, namely: the report of the parliamentary Joint Standing Committee on Intelligence that followed an “investigation” by an inter-ministerial committee set up by Zuma’s hatchet man, then Justice Minister Jeff Radebe, and the progress report of the Special Investigating Unit that Zuma had asked for despite the fact that the unit answers to him.
This led to a deluge of criticism – including apparently from the Office of the Public Protector – that he had not actually dealt with the Public Protector’s report– criticism dismissed by Zuma’s office over the weekend.
Zuma’s response, however, does not actually deal directly with the findings in Madonsela’s report or her suggested remedies. Instead it appears to ignore her key findings and recommendations, shifts the blame to subordinates – as he has done before in for example the Guptagate affair – and has tasked Minister of Police Nkosinathi Nhleko, appointed by and answerable directly to him, to determine how much, if anything, he should pay back to the state.
What seems clear is that Zuma tried to dilute the damning elements of the Public Protector’s report by delaying his response as long as possible and by dissolving her report into the contradictory vagaries of two other reports. His timing in submitting his response is also questionable.
On Friday the respected constitutional law expert Professor Marinus Wiechers said Zuma’s timing was alarming. According to Wiechers the normal process would have been for the Public Protector’s report to have been debated in Parliament, as is prescribed in the Constitution.
The Speaker of the National Assembly of the previous Parliament, Max Sisulu, followed those prescriptions when he established an ad hoc committee on Nkandla to look into Madonsela’s report. The ANC, however, delayed the workings of that committee until its mandate came to an end with the general election.
When the DA later tabled a motion in the National Assembly for the re-establishment of the ad hoc committee, the ANC shot it down. Now, however, the ANC has praised Zuma’s submission of his response and says it will call on Parliament to deal with the matter, Zuma having asked that “it be laid to rest for once and always”.
Wiechers however says that according to the constitution, Pres. Zuma is supposed to co-ordinate the actions of his cabinet, and that by saying he did not know what his ministers were doing and shifting blame, he is circumventing his duty. That seems to suggest that the matter could well still be subjected to legal actions. Whatever happens next, it is unlikely to go away.
In political discourses throughout the nation it seems common cause that Zuma’s controversial leadership and his repeated failure to take responsibility have become so entrenched that it can no longer change. Instead, it will continue to infect the style of governance, strengthen the paradigm of corruption and unaccountability that has befallen South Africa, and further inform the worsening local and international perceptions of the kind of country South Africa has become under the Zuma administration.