Defending the indefensible: How Nkandla is killing the ANC’s vibe
The ANC might have set out to tell its good story, but it is becoming more and more difficult task. The cacophony of voices of disillusionment and the negative sentiment the ANC has encountered at some public events, like what happened to Public Enterprises Minister Malusi Gigaba at The Gathering last week, should have triggered an alarm in the party’s election war room. Instead ANC leaders are trying to play it down and wish it away. It is clear the ANC is also writing off certain constituencies as lost causes and thinks the best defence is to demonise the critics. But perhaps the only long-term sustainable way to navigate the crisis is to confront it and also slaughter some holy cows – especially those in a high security cattle kraal in the heart of KwaZulu-Natal. By RANJENI MUNUSAMY.
The ANC’s elections head Malusi Gigaba runs a super ministry with all the country’s parastatals and major infrastructure projects under him. He is also the head of elections in the ANC and one of the party’s heavy hitters. He is avant garde, streetwise and savvy. This is why he is number three on its national candidate list, straight after President Jacob Zuma and ANC deputy president Cyril Ramaphosa.
Daily Maverick chose Gigaba to be on the list of high-powered speakers for The Gathering: Election Edition for all these reasons, but also because as a rising political star, he represents the future leadership of the ANC. His generation will inherit custodianship of the ANC in a few years and we wanted to hear where he saw the party and the country going.
The problem is, Gigaba came to The Gathering with Nkandla strapped to his back. Next to the Oscar Pistorius murder trial, the R246 million upgrade at Zuma’s Nkandla’s residence remains a hot topic in the national discourse and ANC leaders often have to confront it on the election trail.
Speaking during the same session with Democratic Alliance (DA) leader Helen Zille and Agang leader Mamphela Ramphele, Gigaba anticipated that he would be under attack over Nkandla and other scandals plaguing the ANC. The other panelist, Cosatu general secretary Zwelinzima Vavi, is also noted for hammering the ANC on corruption and abuse of power – which is precisely what landed him in trouble with the political powers.
And so Gigaba went on the attack. He accused the opposition of regurgitating scare stories and employing “swart gevaar” tactics. He said the DA was “obsessed” with Zuma and was brandishing him as “another African to fear”. Ramphele saw that Gigaba was on the defensive and taunted him. This found resonance in the audience, and some people jeered him.
Asked what the appropriate reaction should have been to the Nkandla scandal, Gigaba said he could not determine how anyone else should react. He said people who “don’t like the ANC will remain not liking it”. The hostility to the ANC was independent of the Nkandla report, Gigaba said, but it was a trigger.
And therein lies the problem.
Gigaba, like so many others in the ANC’s top leadership, seem to think that the outrage and disillusionment over Nkandla is based on dislike for Zuma and/or the ANC. They seem oblivious to the fact that much of the indignation is based on deep love the ANC from those who cannot bear to see the 102-year-old organisation soiled by abuse and scandal.
It is precisely that sentiment which leaves the door open to the ANC to rescue the situation and turn things around. If the ANC had adopted a principled position on Nkandla, they could have separated the party from the scandal. But by fumbling through it and going to great lengths to protect the president from being held accountable, the party is straitjacketed in the cover-up. Now the ANC is agitated that Nkandla has become an election issue.
At an election debate at Wits University on Thursday night, ANC secretary general Gwede Mantashe had an even worse time than Gigaba did at The Gathering. Mantashe was asked whether the security upgrades at Zuma’s Nkandla residence had dented the image of the ANC and if it was a betrayal of the legacy of the Nelson Mandela. He resorted to the ANC script of comparing Public Protector Thuli Madonsela’s report on the upgrades to that of government’s inter-ministerial task team.
Mantashe, not surprisingly, got booed. “I don’t have to say what they (the crowd) like,” Mantashe said, according to a report in The Star.
On Saturday, Mantashe was in Meadowlands, Soweto, campaigning in a completely different constituency to the people who were at Wits or at The Gathering. He was jeered again. According to the Sunday Independent, Mantashe lost his temper when confronted with questions about Nkandla.
“What have you heard? I need to know, including (what you heard) on the basis of newspapers (reports). The problem is that you didn’t read about the minister’s report and the public protector’s report … you read the newspapers,” Mantashe is reported to have told a resident who demanded answers from him about the spending on Zuma’s house.
Speaking to journalists afterwards, Mantashe said of the confrontation: “If you open a window (for people to join the ANC), even mosquitoes come in”.
But now people who can hardly be called “mosquitoes” in terms of their former positions and contribution to the liberation struggle are among those campaigning against the ANC based on the scandals besieging the party. ANC veteran Ronnie Kasrils and former deputy health minister Nozizwe Madlala-Routledge are campaigning for South Africans to spoil their ballots on 7 May in order to punish the ANC. The “Sidikiwe! Vukani! Vote No” campaign is to be launched at Wits University on Tuesday, targeting traditional ANC supporters who could not vote in good conscience for the party now.
The ANC has waved off the campaign as the work of disgruntled people, one which would have no bearing on the party’s election performance.
But how much criticism can the ANC dismiss before it becomes completely divorced from reality? The party leadership is opting more and more to talk directly to its grassroots base because it believes most of the mainstream media is hostile. There is less engagement with sections of the middle class, whom the ANC believes are a lost cause. Election debates with opposition parties are turning out to be a nightmare for the ANC, as it is impossible for the ruling party to project its election messages when it is pelted with condemnation about its handling of the Nkandla scandal.
And sometimes the ANC is its own worst enemy. On Saturday the party was granted leave to appeal the judgment on the DA SMS case. The ANC had taken the DA to court over the distribution of an SMS to over 1.5 million Gauteng residents. The SMS read: “The Nkandla report shows how Zuma stole your money to build his R246m home. Vote DA on 7 May to beat corruption. Together for change.”
The ANC went to the South Gauteng High Court to get the DA to retract and apologise for the SMS. Acting Judge Mike Hellens ruled that the SMS was fair comment. “The use of the phrase... ‘licence to loot’... comes very close to the wording ‘stole’ used in... the SMS.... I do not find a case has been brought by the applicant for the declaratory order sought by it,” the judge ruled.
The ANC now wants to reopen the matter before the Electoral Court and have the matter argued by the two parties again. As if the first case was not damaging enough when the DA presents arguments to support why it was justified in sending out the message to voters, the matter will be debated in the Electoral Court again, this time closer to the election date. This means that people who might be forgetting about the Nkandla scandal will be reminded of all the murky details again.
By trying to defend the president and attack the critics, the ANC is venturing further into troubled waters that will cause even more damage to it election campaign. Instead of confronting the Nkandla crisis head on, and taking the pain of making all those implicated do the right thing, the ANC now has to lug the ever-growing monster everywhere on the campaign trail. Its leaders are trying to take their anger out on everyone else for the Nkandla scandal except those whom Madonsela found to be culpable.
Had President Zuma admitted that he should have been attentive to the spending on the upgrades at his house and agreed to pay back what he owes, and if the ANC ministers and their officials who circumvented procedures been reprimanded, the ANC could have shaken off the monster by now and kept its election campaign in track.
Instead, they are all forced to defend the indefensible and sacrifice the image of the ANC as a result. If the Public Protector’s report, persistent questions stemming from it, heat from the media, taunting from the opposition, disapproval from veteran leaders, condemnation from the commentariat and boos from ordinary people do not get through to the ANC, the question must be asked “What will it take?”
There is also a strong sense that running out the clock is seen as the best strategy that the ANC leadership can deploy in the remaining weeks before the election. Perhaps 7 May is expected to be the day that will erase all the problems and reset the system.
It will not.
The ANC is widely expected to win the day on 7 May. However, Nkandla, Marikana, unemployment, hopelessness, patronage and corruption will all be as potent and as damaging as they are right now. It will not be forgotten that the ANC chose to close its eyes to excesses and abuses, and its ears to the cacophony of voices screaming for it to self-correct. This is against its very nature and history, and it will hurt it hard over the long term.
It takes moral leadership to pull an august organisation out of the mud and breathe a new life into it. But do not hold your breath; this time, it surely feels like the mud will remain. DM