Published in the May edition of the Bulletin & Record, Zambia
The political teflon that seemed to enable South Africa’s President Jacob Zuma to slip out of one scandal and crisis after another has been ripped away by the Constitutional Court. In a case brought by opposition parties, the court found in March that Zuma had violated the Constitution in the manner he had dealt with the long-running scandal of the R246 million of taxpayers’ money spent on his private compound at Nkandla.
As questions began to be raised about this expense, he lied to parliament and ignored findings of the public protector — the constitutional guardian of public interest — when she found him to be responsible for paying back some of the money spent. Instead, he claimed to owe nothing and appointed police minister Nathi Nhleko, regarded as a close crony, to draw up another report that exonerated him.
Nhleko even went to the extent of having a video filmed that purported to show that the swimming pool at Nkandla was, in fact a “fire pool” designed to protect buildings at Nkandla in case of fire. The film became something of a national joke.
In parliament, Zuma mocked the opposition about what he said was their obsession with Nkandla and publicly stated that the issue was of no interest to most of the electorate. He was wrong and public ire mounted as the opposition Economic Freedom Fighters, supported by the Democratic Alliance, took the matter to the Constitutional Court.
Amid mounting public criticism and with the matter scheduled to be heard, Zuma suddenly recanted and announced that he would pay back any money owed. This belated attempt to have the court matter dropped failed. But Nhleko, Zuma’s cabinet and the parliamentarians of the ruling party who had all supported his “no pay” contention, then found themselves in a very embarrassing position.
Out on the streets, a “Zuma must go” movement also began building, joined by civic organisations, including the South African Council of Churches and by leading ANC veterans such as former Rivonia trialists Ahmed Kathrada and Dennis Goldberg. In the wake of the court judgement, they expressed concern.
The unanimous ruling of the 11 Constitutional Court judges, read out by Chief Justice Mogoeng Mogoeng noted: “[Zuma] failed in his duty to help and protect the public protector’s office to ensure its independence, impartiality, dignity and effectiveness.” It added: “The National Assembly was duty-bound to hold the president accountable by facilitating and ensuring compliance with the decision of the public protector.”
The South African Constitution allows for a president to be removed from office if he is “in serious violation of the Constitution or the law” or is guilty of “serious misconduct”. Clearly, Zuma had been found guilty on certainly one if not both counts. It was then up to parliament to take appropriate action.
Zuma promptly apologised, but only for the “confusion” that had been caused by the Nkandla issue and dug in his heels. Urgent meetings were called of the “top six” leaders of the ANC and of the national executive (NEC). But rumours that Zuma would agree to step down were quickly quashed.
While the teflon had been ripped away, Zuma still had a powerful card to play: chaos, with the threat of both the party and the country being “torn apart”. These were the very words used by ANC secretary General Gwede Mantashe when he announced that the “top six” were unanimous in their continued support for Zuma. The NEC followed suit and verbal squirming a spinning began with a vengeance:
Zuma had apologised, a great gesture from a president; no other president anywhere else had done so; the Constitutional Court had not used the word “serious”; Zuma had already said he would pay back the money; and South Africa is a “forgiving country”, so the president should be forgiven, for “mistakes”.
As a result, the matter went to parliament with the united opposition moving a motion to have Zuma impeached. Demands by the opposition that a secret ballot be held in order to allow ANC members to exercise their consciences rather than have to toe the party line, were rejected. The vote went as predicted, followed by the opposition walking out en masse.
The big question was how Zuma, known to be opposed by many within the ANC, had been able to hold on to his position unchallenged. The answer was both simple and frightening: he played what has been called the “Yugoslav card” — the threat of territorial fragmentation.
According to a member of the ANC executive, Zuma implied that the province of KwaZulu-Natal (KZN) might rebel should he be axed. This raised again the spectre of the violence of the early 1990s as Inkatha Freedom Party fighters fought ANC defence units in KZN and the Johannesburg area.
But it also raised fears of a regional breakaway since Zuma, as an ANC leader, played a major role in brokering peace between the IFP and ANC and claims support across the political spectrum in the province.
After throwing down the gauntlet at the ANC executive meeting, Zuma underlined this when he addressed a mass meeting in KZN. Speaking in Zulu to an enthusiastic crowd he calling on them to unite as Africans. “Even if you are in different political parties, you should know things that you can vote for separately and things that you need to vote for as a united nation,” he said.
He added: “As your shepherd, let me lead you….whether you are for Zuma or not, at this moment I have been given the task to lead you. Let me lead you.” He followed this up with an address to the national house of traditional leaders, telling them that they should not revert to the courts, but should instead solve problems “the African way”.
If problems were solved legally “they become complicated”. The African way, he noted, dealt not with “cold facts” but with “warm bodies”.
This appeared to be too much even for Chief Justice Mogoeng. Without mentioning Zuma by name he told a social investment conference: “If there was ever a time to embrace ethical leadership and stop spinning and stop lying to your supporters, that time is now.”
So far, Zuma has not budged and the ANC party machine has rolled out to start campaigning for the local government elections, announced for August 3. Major losses then could finally dislodge him. But then again, perhaps not.