The threat behind Zuma’s ’embarrassment’

Posted on May 20, 2016


Produced for end May issue of Zambia’s Bulletin & Record

Speak to journalists and commentators around the world who have an interest in South Africa and most will express a mixture of concern, puzzlement and even incredulity at the antics of President Jacob Zuma. However, according to Zuma, leaders around Africa have a very different view: they are puzzled and upset at the behaviour of opposition members of South Africa’s parliament.

The conduct of these MPs, Zuma claims, are an embarrassment to him, at home and abroad. “I go around Africa and people ask me very embarrassing questions about this parliament,” he told a national assembly boycotted by almost all the opposition parties following the physical expulsion of Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) members.

Emboldened by a Constitutional Court ruling that Zuma had “failed to uphold, defend and respect the Constitution” the EFF pounced. Added to their arsenal was a high court judgment that the National Prosecuting Authority (NPA) had acted “irrationally” in dropping 783 charges of corruption, racketeering and money laundering against Zuma,

As a result opposition politicians referred to Zuma in parliament as “Accused number one”. And demanded that he recuse himself.

This was ruled out of order by the Speaker, Baleka Mbete, who also chairs the governing ANC. Given this background, the EFF declared that Zuma had no right to address parliament: he was accused in criminal cases and had been found to have violated his oath of office.

In the shouting match that followed, EFF MPs were bundled out of parliament by protection services called in by the Speaker. In a following session, with most opposition MPS absent, Zuma commended Mbete for the way she had handled the situation. However, he also chided the Speaker for not doing more to “to get her House in order”.

Looking serious, he added: “I think it would be very important that you seriously bring this House into some order for the dignity of the country.” As leading local columnist and commentator Justice Malala noted: this came from a man who gets away with “outrageous and vulgar acts”, a man facing a multitude of criminal charges , who has been mired in a variety of scandals and who acts in a “shifty. shameless and arrogant way”.

A widespread conclusion was that this meant that Zuma did not give a fig for the constitution. His argument seems to be that South Africa is a “parliamentary democracy”; that parliament is therefore supreme, even if an occasional nod must be given to the constitution. And since the ANC controls parliament, and he controls the ANC at the parliamentary and executive level, his word is law.

It is a simplistic and distorted view of reality, but it is one that Zuma appears to hold. He has also ensured that he has sufficient support in the areas that matter in what is, in effect, an extremely hierarchical governing structure.

This, in many ways, is a duplicate of the organisational structure in the exile years of the ANC. Then, in the period immediately before the unbanning of the ANC and formal negotiations starting with apartheid South Africa, Zuma headed the notorious Mbokodo (“Grinding stone”) security apparatus of the ANC.

“He is shrewd, cunning. And he knows where all the skeletons are buried,” said a senior ANC official who, like others in his position, wished to remain anonymous.

Zuma’s current tactic, it seems, is to appeal to neighbouring states as well as to the many disillusioned local ANC supporters by claiming that he is the subject of an international conspiracy. In this lexicon, “imperialists” and “CIA agents” abound. Even public protector, Thuli Madonsela has been formally investigated for allegedly working for the CIA.

In what is clearly a reference to neighbouring Botswana where a fractious group based on South Africa’s EFF has emerged, Zuma noted: “I thought you should know this, some are complaining particularly in this region that in the manner in which we behave in parliament…..They are now saying you are influencing some of their people in a wrong way.”

Other neighbouring states that have apparently lodged protests include Swaziland, Africa’s last feudal kingdom where King Mswati III exercises autocratic control. Zuma is still betrothed to one of Mswati’s sisters and the kingdom faces increasing resistance from an opposition with an exile base in South Africa.

The situation is in a state of flux. But Zuma, as matters still stand, seems as firmly in the saddle as ever, despite calls for his resignation from everyone from church groups to leading ANC veterans. By various means, not least patronage, he controls the party machine, the cabinet, parliament and the party executive.

Columnists such as Malala may bewail the fact that Zuma, without any apart shame, continues to make the remarks — and behave in the way — he does. But whether Zuma’s antics and outbursts will contribute into a decided defeat for the ANC in the August 3 local government elections remains to be seen.

Given the latest unemployment statistics released on May 9, it is not only the elections, but general instability that must be a concern. With official unemployment again on the rise and with youth unemployment often as high as 60% in many areas, instability looms.

As indeed does the prospect of a state of emergency that would retain Jacob Zuma in control

In the first two weeks of May, for example, 24 schools, along with other government buildings, were burned down following protests in the country’s northern, Limpopo, province. It matters not what the issues behind the protests were: sufficient that they took place, along with others around the country on an ongoing basis.

Potential excuses do already exist for the declaration of state of emergency should Zuma or others in his government feel such a step necessary. Once again, time will tell.

In the meantime, a judiciary, still clearly independent, and a public protector who has continued to “speak truth to power’ continue to maintain the essential elements of a constitutional democracy. But, in October, the term of public protector Thuli Mandonsela ends. And her replacement is the prerogative of Zuma.

Posted in: Reports abroad