Nkandla and its elder brother, Watergate

By J Brooks Spector 20 March 2014

For an American, the unfurling Nkandla scandal and the Public Prosecutor’s report almost insists on comparisons with the Watergate scandal of forty years ago. J. BROOKS SPECTOR takes a look and asks what they have in common.

Watching Public Protector Thuli Madonsela’s televised release of her report on government spending at the president’s private Nkandla compound, and then the government’s initial response via a briefing by Justice Minister Jeff Radebe, makes it almost unavoidable to have a flashback to America’s Watergate crisis.

Watergate was forty years ago, but memories of a secret security project gone very badly rogue and that ended up being traced right into the president’s office – and a whole host of lesser officials caught by its tendrils as well – came flooding right back as the Public Prosecutor’s briefing took place on television. In the end, in Watergate, a president was compelled to resign rather than face being found guilty in a vote by the US Senate, so maybe the end game will be rather different; it is still early days.

Of course, South Africa is also in thrall to the trial of a celebrity athlete charged with the killing of a beautiful young woman. And this local trial seems more than a little reminiscent of another American cause celebre. In this case, it was the OJ Simpson trial, just shy of twenty years ago. Taken together, South Africa now seems like it has moved well and truly into the national scandals big leagues.

The Nixon Watergate scandal began before the 1972 election, when the Nixon administration felt so beleaguered by anti-Vietnam War protests, civil rights protests, and other manifestations of the counterculture that it concocted a program to disrupt such organisations and harass their leadership. This effort eventually morphed into the idea the Nixon re-election campaign, together with the White House, could thoroughly undermine the Democrats’ chaotic campaign of Senator George McGovern run for the presidency, using a fair bit of burglary and other mischief, and thereby guaranteeing Nixon’s reelection.

In the end, of course, the whole thing came unravelled – starting slowly and tentatively when the original team of burglars who broke into Democratic Party headquarters were caught, and then as the trail for their “walking around” and bail money led to a White House security aide. Yet other money flows for still other unsavoury projects were linked to the Nixon re-election campaign, and then, in an unanticipated thunderbolt at the first congressional committee to look at the Watergate scandal – the Senate Special Investigating Committee under North Carolina Senator Sam Ervin – one White House underling, in an off-hand remark, let people know that every conversation in the president’s Oval Office had been recorded.

That led to a struggle to get transcripts of the tapes released to see if there was a “smoking gun” linking Nixon to the various illegal acts that had been carried out during the presidential campaign. As things became more and more awkward for Richard Nixon, one senior aide after another was jettisoned overboard, as their complicity in the break-in, the payoffs and the other dirty tricks became clear – all in an effort to shield the ultimate conspirator from criminal or political harm.

Eventually, on 29 April 1974, a particularly grim-faced Richard Nixon went on nationwide television with stacks of books containing transcriptions of the White House tapes piled up behind him, meant to show his openness and disclosure. But then yet another secretly recorded conversation was released under political and popular duress. This conversation dated to just a few days after the original break-in, putting it right at the beginning of the cover-up, making it clear the president and one of his closest aids, HR Haldeman, had met in the Oval Office to work out a way to stonewall any further investigations – or in other words, to plan for the obstruction of justice and to conspire to commit a felony, among other crimes. Their chosen path was to insist that the CIA mislead the FBI in saying that grave national security issues had been involved in that break-in. And, as a result, the FBI needed to back off from any further investigations, lest the country be harmed by external enemies.

In this regard, Haldeman said, “…the Democratic break-in thing, we’re back to the–in the, the problem area because the FBI is not under control, because Gray doesn’t exactly know how to control them, and they have… their investigation is now leading into some productive areas […] and it goes in some directions we don’t want it to go.” He went on to tell Nixon that “the way to handle this now is for us to have Walters [CIA] call Pat Gray [FBI] and just say, ‘Stay the hell out of this …this is ah, business here we don’t want you to go any further on it.’ ”

At which point, Nixon told Haldeman, “All right, fine, I understand it all. We won’t second-guess Mitchell and the rest.” And then, told his aide,  “You call them in. Good. Good deal. Play it tough. That’s the way they play it and that’s the way we are going to play it.” This was sufficient to make the national gorge rise beyond the gagging point. A small group of senior Republican senators visited Nixon and told him straight up that the game was over; he had to go – and very, very soon. Shortly afterwards he did indeed resign. He boarded Air Force One for the last time as president on 9 Augusts 1974 and flew off to exile to his extensive compound in San Clemente, California.

Given all this, let’s review some of those key plot elements. A so-called security project goes seriously rogue and runs totally amuck. One courageous newspaper tackles the plot and eventually breaks the story wide open, helping bring national opprobrium upon the presidency. Before the story has been blown wide open, a veritable flood of money had been spent on the whole rapidly ballooning political dirty tricks effort. Bureaucracies were perverted in the service of keeping the growing conspiracy a hush-hush effort – in to keep it out of the public eye as well as beyond the purview of legitimate law enforcement agencies.

Eventually, something goes awry and word leaks out. An investigating body – not under the control of the White House – starts to take a really harsh look at what was going on inside the president’s office. One after another, senior presidential aides and staffers are jettisoned in an effort to staunch the bleeding and keep the scandal a few steps away from the president. An increasingly hostile Congress starts to investigate and hold hearings on the matter.

But then, a growing pile of incriminating documents and audiotape transcripts comes to light. It finally, eventually, ultimately, becomes clear that despite all the denials, all the demurs, it was the president, together with many of his closest aides, who were at the very centre of the mess, despite all the disavowals, denials and all those cat-that-ate-the-canary public appearances. An incensed Congress finally moves forward on to a bill of impeachment to remove an increasingly disgraced president from office.

True, South Africa’s current scandal is less about perverting the entire democratic process than it is about twisting the arms and agencies of government to spend great gouts of cash on a project of personal gain and benefit. This is, of course, in contrast to the Watergate scandal and its, largely electoral, aims. But, in the process, the key core elements also include the perversion of the political process and the hunt for the steps in a trail that ultimately leads to the highest office in the land.

Or as Pierre de Vos commented in a social media posting after the Public Protector’s report was made public, “The Public protector did not make much of this, but if you read the full Nkandla Report, it is littered with evidence that President Zuma – in conflict with claims to the contrary – was intimately involved in the ‘security upgrades’….” Specifically, De Vos cited a section of the report where it said, “6.45.14. It was further recorded that the fire-pool submission was with the Bid Committee for approval and that all outstanding matters discussed between the Deputy Minister and the President had been resolved. No details were provided in this regard. This confirms the evidence of Deputy Minister Bogopane-Zulu that the matter of the swimming pool was discussed with the President.”

In an early effort to staunch the bleeding, the Presidency organised an initial briefing by Justice Minister Jeff Radebe, who insisted the government was already well on the way to rooting out those scofflaws who did all those illegal or unethical things and that procedures will be tightened to prevent anything like it again, and that, oh yes, the president had nothing to do with any of this. And he will, soon enough, release his response to the Public Prosecutor’s report. No senior (or junior) bureaucrats or presidential aides have been thrown overboard yet, but, then again, it is still early days.

Later in the day on Wednesday, the Presidency announced that it had taken proper note of the Public Prosecutor’s report. In so doing, the statement spoke of embracing the Chapter 9 institutions like the Public Prosecutor as crucial for democracy, reaffirming “the important role of the Chapter 9 institutions and emphasises that the country should take pride in their existence, as we celebrate 20 years of freedom and democracy and guard against the abuse and misuse of these institutions.” If memory is clear, Richard Nixon used to speak rather regularly about the importance of Congress, too – in public.

The Presidency’s statement went on to say that Number One “has consistently been concerned about the allegations of impropriety around procurement in the Nkandla project. It is for this reason that government appointed an Inter-Ministerial Task Team. The report has been made public and it has also been presented to Parliament. In addition, last December, President Zuma directed the Special Investigating Unit to probe alleged maladministration committed during the implementation of the security upgrades at Nkandla.”

As a result, the presidency held its nose to embrace the Madonsela report, saying, “the Public Protector’s report will be an additional tool which will fall under the consideration of President Zuma in addressing allegations of maladministration” and that the President will communicate his response to the report down the road a bit.

It remains to be seen, of course, how the Presidency will finesse its response to the report’s finding that “The original allegation that President Zuma’s immediate family members also improperly benefitted from the measures implemented is substantiated. President Zuma improperly benefited from the measures implemented in the name of security which include non-security comforts such as the Visitors’ Centre, such as the swimming pool, amphitheater, cattle kraal with culvert and chicken run. The private medical clinic at the family’s doorstep will also benefit the family forever. The acts and omissions that allowed this to happen constitute unlawful and improper conduct and maladministration.”

The way things are going, the Madonsela report and its continuing aftermath may well give the Oscar Pistorius trial a real run for its money in its heretofore stronghold on the public’s attention. What is less clear is how this appalling report and the various presidential responses to it now being choreographed will play out for the president and his future political life – or for his aides and deputies, their political party, and the party’s fate in the upcoming election. Perhaps that will be the ultimate measurement of Nkandla’s similarity to its big brother, Watergate. DM

Read more:

  • In addition to full coverage in other Daily Maverick articles on this issue,
  • Secure in Comfort (the full Nkandla Report) Office of the Public Protector
  • Why Madonsela didn’t slam Zuma in her Nkandla report at the Mail & Guardian;
  • Watergate at Forty: The long shadow of the ‘national nightmare’ at the Washington Post;
  • The Watergate Story at the Washington Post.

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