It was a very different Jacob Zuma, being bombarded with arduous questions in the National Assembly on Tuesday, to the relaxed figure chatting to aficionados at The New Age business breakfast in Bloemfontein a few days ago.
At the breakfast, moderated by an amiable SABC host, Zuma faced placid questions, which he didn’t have to think too hard about. Non-answers were overlooked and he even got a few hundred thousand rands pledged into his personal trust for his trouble.
But opposition members of Parliament had clearly been waiting to pin Zuma down on a number of contentious issues on the national agenda – and he was not having the best of days anyway. The president’s question sessions in Parliament don’t happen very often but when they do, the ANC’s majority representation in the House usually ensures that sweetheart questions outnumber pointed ones from the opposition.
But on a day when Zuma’s attention must have been divided between Parliament and events in Johannesburg, where the ANC was making an application in the South Gauteng High Court to have the (now-defaced) painting of the president with his private parts exposed removed from the gallery and City Press’s website, opposition MPs dominated the question session.
The first question from an ANC MP on the infrastructure programme of the New Partnership for Africa’s Development gave Zuma time to settle in and read the prepared response. Then Democratic Alliance MP Tim Harris gave Zuma something to latch on to when he commented in a follow-up question that Cabinet ministers are “deurmekaar” (Afrikaans for confused) because of their contradictory messages on infrastructure development.
As the session became more heated, Zuma repeatedly used the word to fight back, telling the opposition they were deurmekaar in their questioning.
The DA’s parliamentary leader, Lindiwe Mazibuko, took up most of the president’s attention, probing him on whether he would take anti-corruption measures to stop the ANC and its allies benefiting from big government infrastructure projects, the controversial Richard Mdluli matter and what he was planning to do about the collapse of the Limpopo government.
Zuma said there was no law which prevented any companies from doing business with government, and if politically aligned companies follow “necessary procedures” and won tenders, that did not constitute corruption.
“Maybe we read different dictionaries. I don’t think citizens in this country can’t have businesses. Why should you be punished because you think in a particular way politically? It is unconstitutional,” Zuma said, to howls from the opposition benches.
Zuma and Mazibuko again clashed on a question on national government’s intervention in Limpopo and the Eastern Cape, which the president claimed was reaping rewards. He said Limpopo had moved from having a R2-billion shortfall to a cash reserve of R231.4-million on 31 March.
But Mazibuko accused Zuma of “fiddling while Rome burned” citing the “dire situation” relating to the non-delivery of textbooks in Limpopo and the collapse of services in hospitals. She asked whether he agreed that Premier Cassel Mathale should “do the right thing” and resign. Zuma said investigations by the law enforcement agencies were ongoing – only when wrong was discovered could action be taken.
It was the Mdluli matter that exposed the president’s frayed nerves. In the prepared reply to Mazibuko’s question about Mdluli’s reinstatement as head of crime intelligence, Zuma tried to distance himself from the matter, saying the day-to-day operations and staff movements in departments were not his responsibility.
“The minister of police has announced a task team to investigate some aspects of this matter, while the inspector general of intelligence is also probing aspects that are within her mandate. I would like to assure this House and the public that everything is being done to address this matter,” Zuma said.
But Mazibuko wouldn’t let it go. She demanded to know why the office of the president had not intervened when Mdluli had been implicated in a “chilling series of criminal acts” and whether Zuma was involved in Mdluli’s reinstatement. She also wanted to know whether a commission of inquiry would be appointed into the illicit activities at crime intelligence, including the false implication of Cabinet minister and MP Tokyo Sexwale in a plot to unseat Zuma.
Zuma replied that if he left his tasks to deal with government officials, it would lead to a “mad situation”. “It will be really deurmekaar,” he said. He jabbed at Mazibuko, saying her lack of experience in government was why she didn’t understand the chain of command and procedures.
“When the two processes (the task team and inspector-general investigations) are concluded, the president acts. And that is what is going to be done, my dear,” Zuma said, flouting parliamentary protocol.
When Cope MP Leonard Ramatlakane asked Zuma why Mdluli was appointed through an unprocedural process involving members of his Cabinet and which sidelined the national police commissioner, the president responded: “Do you expect me to know the details?”
And when the DA’s ferocious spokeswoman on the police Dianne Kohler-Barnard asked what he would do if the investigations found that MPs, including the police minister Nathi Mthethwa, had benefited from the secret service account, Zuma said he was not a “sangoma”.
Ramatlakane wanted to know why Zuma had not commented on the “inflammatory accusations” contained in the discredited crime intelligence “ground coverage report” which had implicated Sexwale and others in the plot. Zuma claimed not to have seen the report and said he didn’t take information reported in newspapers seriously.
He also dodged Ramatlakane’s question about whether other people in government and MPs were being bugged as a result of abuse of state resources for political ends. He said the investigations currently in progress would probably discover if anyone was being bugged illegally.
The leader of the United Democratic Movement, Bantu Holomisa, asked Zuma if the allegations in the ground coverage report were untrue why he had not moved to clear the names of those implicated or acted against the authors who had misled his office.
“I have received no report. I don’t want to get into speculations,” Zuma said, the edge in his voice now palpable. He was also not his usual giggly self when Kohler-Barnard told him that he had not provided “a single straight answer today”.
The Speaker of Parliament, Max Sisulu, eventually brought the hour-and-a- half grilling to an end, and when Zuma returned to his seat, Deputy President Kgalema Motlanthe reached over to shake his hand. It could have been to commiserate over the difficult day Zuma was having, or to say “rather you than me”.
Whereas Zuma has the ANC, Cosatu, the SACP, the Young Communist League and his family fighting his battle over the Spear painting, he had to fight his battle with the opposition in Parliament all on his own. And if the session left him feeling battered, the mass show of support planned for Thursday at the South Gauteng High Court will probably restore his good spirits. His portrait, however, seems to be done for good. DM
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The Hindenburg had a smoking room.