Vociferous Wednesdays: Nkandla is here to stay
- Rebecca Davis
- Life, etc
- 24 Apr 2014 (South Africa)
Today the Parliamentary ad-hoc committee set up to look into the Public Protector’s report on Nkandla will meet for the first time. At a panel discussion on Wednesday night in Cape Town, two weeks before elections, the enhancements to Zuma’s private residence were on the menu too. The question on everyone’s minds seemed to be: what can ordinary citizens do to ensure a repeat of the Nkandla debacle doesn’t take place? By REBECCA DAVIS.
The issue of whether the costly upgrades to Nkandla will have an impact on the ANC’s performance at the polls this year is one that has been endlessly debated. An Ipsos Markinor poll in January suggested that it might, revealing that Nkandla was “among some of the reasons the ANC is growing unpopular among voters”.
But the results of a Sunday Times-commissioned poll revealed last weekend painted a different picture. This suggested that Madonsela’s report “had only a marginally negative effect on the ANC’s support by the beginning of April”, down from 66,1% the month before to 65,5%.
At a discussion convened by the Daily Maverick, Open Society Foundation and the Cape Town's Book Lounge on Wednesday, however, it was clear from the responses of the packed audience that Nkandla was still foremost in many minds. At least one panelist – activist Zackie Achmat – indicated that he did not believe the scandal would have a significant impact on the ANC’s election performance.
“People don’t vote for Nkandla,” Achmat said. “It’s not ignorance that brings people to vote for the ANC. It’s material conditions.” While Achmat – a longtime ANC member – said that he himself would not be voting ANC in the elections, he also said that he felt there was not yet a viable alternative to the party. “[The ANC] will do well from the Mandela dividend,” he predicted, referring to the emotional appeal of an ANC vote in tribute to Mandela’s lifetime devotion to the party.
But which ANC will people be voting for? As the Daily Maverick’s Ranjeni Munusamy pointed out, there are “several” ANCs that voters hold in their minds now, with the 102-year old organisation of Tambo and Mandela sometimes seeming worlds apart from the corruption-ridden administration of Jacob Zuma.
If voters are looking for better news, Munusamy reminded the audience of at least two significantly positive developments in the political process since the dawn of democracy. The first is the (by-and-large) cessation of political violence. “In 20 years, that’s something many of us have forgotten,” Munusamy said, musing that in decades past, the topic on the agenda for the evening would certainly have been political violence.
The other is the existence of a more engaged electorate. Munusamy suggested that after majority rule was entrenched in 1994, voters became complacent. Recent scandals, like Nkandla and Marikana, have partly helped galvanise citizens into political awareness, Munusamy said. But she also posited that the presence of Julius Malema in this year’s elections had served to stir up the electorate. Munusamy pointed out that Malema had been virtually the only figure on the campaign trail bringing Marikana with him.
Civil society, too, has become increasingly powerful in terms of shaping public opinion. Munusamy made reference to the Easter Sunday address of Zion Christian Church leader Bishop Barnabas Lekganyane, which he used to urge the ZCC’s 12 million members to vote for “leaders who do not confuse public funds with theirs”, interpreted as an implicit reference to Nkandla.
Lekganyane’s words were a reminder of the increasingly outspoken role taken by the church in South Africa’s public life. At the same time as the panel discussion was taking place on Wednesday, Bishop Desmond Tutu was addressing a media audience down the road in Cape Town. At the event, Tutu confirmed that he would not be voting for the ANC.
Back at the Book Lounge, one of Tutu’s successors in the position of South African Anglican Archbishop of Cape Town, Thabo Makgoba, was also having his political say – though not in quite as direct a form as Tutu.
“When the president says he has not robbed Treasury, I want to say: ‘Mr President, did you hold the ladder when someone broke into Treasury’s house?’” Makgoba asked. The Archbishop indicated that he had found President Zuma’s non-response to the Nkandla scandal thus far to be woefully inadequate. When the ad-hoc Parliamentary committee meets on Thursday, Makgoba said that his prayer would be that they would ask: “Which of our Constitutional values did you use in making your decision about the millions spent on your private home?”
Makgoba said that he hoped the committee would look not just at Zuma’s response to Thuli Madonsela’s report but also ask what the plans were to tackle the high levels of distrust towards government among ordinary citizens at the moment. He added that it was his hope that the Nkandla issue would give birth to a “national conversation” about our national values.
“We deserve better,” Makgoba concluded.
Human rights lawyer Mandisa Shandu also expressed hope that some good would come out of Nkandla, in terms of a greater public awareness and engagement. The public, Shandu said, should be vigilant about the type of leadership environment they accept. There was no legal authority for the use of state funds in this matter, she said, and their misuse is not something the public should tolerate. “Ordinary South Africans must speak out and say no,” Shandu said.
Achmat took matters a step further, repeating his belief that Zuma should be impeached. He pointed out, however, the hypocrisy in certain responses to the Nkandla scandal, whereby outrage is expressed at Nkandla but not at other egregious aspects of South African daily life. Referring to the ongoing issue of inadequate sanitation in Cape Town’s townships, Achmat told the audience: “Everyone should go to Khayelitsha. I don’t want to hear anyone say: ‘I care about Nkandla, but those people can shit in a bush’.”
The two bodies South Africa has to thank for exposing Nkandla, Achmat said, were the Mail & Guardian (who carried out the initial expose in 2009) and the Public Protector. Similarly, AmaBhungane’s Sam Sole used his platform to pay tribute to the role of late journalist Mandy Rossouw, who “got the wrecking ball swinging on this story”, and also to the “surefootedness, the courage, the hard-nosed realism” of Public Protector Madonsela.
Sole noted that there has been some criticism levelled against Madonsela for not having used her subpoena powers to gain access to documents or extract direct answers from President Zuma. But he said he had no doubt that if Madonsela had opted for a direct confrontation in this matter, it would have set off protracted litigation battles which might have postponed her report indefinitely. He sounded a sombre note: “[Madonsela’s] term will come to an end and there’s no guarantee that the next [Public Protector] will be the same”.
Munusamy recalled the press conference at which Madonsela released her report, where Munusamy asked the Public Protector why she had held back from prescribing a remedy for Zuma’s ethical breach – whereas remedies were suggested for various other aspects (such as disciplining various officials).
“[Madonsela] said: ‘I have avoided determining the remedy,’” Munusamy said. “That [remedy] is our responsibility.” DM
The Daily Maverick and Open Society’s ‘Vociferous Wednesday’ events are free, open to all, and planned to take place at Cape Town’s Book Lounge on the last Wednesday of every month. See www.booklounge.co.za/events for future information.
Photo, from left to right: Sam Sole, Ranjeni Munusamy, Archbishop Thabo Makgoba, Mandisa Shandu. Not in the frame: Zackie Achmat and Marianne Thamm (moderator)