South Africa

South Africa

Analysis: A wake-up call from our national nightmare

Analysis: A wake-up call from our national nightmare

Over the last two months, two narratives have been competing for the future of the country and President Jacob Zuma. The first says that the weight of the current scandal around him is too much; that Nkandla, illness and the Zuma Spy Tapes will cause him to be removed, or withdraw, from our politics. Then there are those who suggest that the ANC political machine around Zuma shows no signs of damage; that he will survive, even if parts of our democracy have to be suspended to ensure this. But it’s far more likely that some kind of middle path will be followed. Particularly when you consider that at this stage, Zuma should be in the most powerful position of his presidency, and yet in fact he looks almost under siege. By STEPHEN GROOTES.

It is hardly surprising that there are those who think President Zuma will not see out the end of the year in his position. It surely takes a politician of great power and skill, and particular circumstances, to survive the current weight of many scandals plaguing the president.

In most developed democracies, a single Nkandla-type scandal would have been enough; instead, all that’s happened is that the top leaders of the ANC and the Alliance seem to have drawn together (with the massive exception of Cosatu, which has supported the Public Protector, even though some of its individual unions disagree with that position). That is in itself an indication that the political machine created by Zuma in the face of Thabo Mbeki is still mostly working. To be blunt, the Waterkloof landings, Marikana massacre, the military disaster in Central African Republic and many, many other scandals, are but a memory, and Zuma suffered no appreciable damage.

However, amid all the hurly burly of the politics around Zuma, it appears that there are two major variables. The first is the Zuma Spy Tapes, and the possible reintroduction of the corruption charges against him.

It is sometimes forgotten how important those charges could be. It’s not just, as the DA claims, the “700 charges” against him (they’re really 700 counts, but that’s another story). It’s that there is already a judicial finding that he received money from Schabir Shaik and that he then acted for Shaik after receiving that money. In fact, the seeds of the Nkandla scandal were sown during the Shaik era.

This would mean that legally, there is very likely a strong case against Zuma, which he would battle to survive.

There is obviously much speculation about what is on the Zuma Spy Tapes, and whether that will strengthen the DA’s case, or weaken it. No matter what other people say, it is surely true that Zuma himself knows what is on those tapes. Therefore he is in the driving seat here, compared to everyone else. And he hardly seems to be trembling in his boots about them.

Whether that’s because they are in fact going to prove he was going to be charged only because of a conspiracy against him (which can hardly be true, in light of the Shaik judgment) or because they will be embarrassing for his enemies, is hard to tell. However, he can certainly be playing from some position of confidence, at least for time being.

Having said all of that, while there were plenty of people in the ANC who were prepared to “die for Zuma” in 2008 (and even one who was prepared to “kill for Zuma”), he certainly doesn’t engender that kind of emotional support now.

Then there is the second variable around Zuma: his health. No matter how it is spun, the man just doesn’t look well. Just about every report now features a mention of how he looks. As we’ve pointed out before, once this sort of guessing starts, it’s hard to stop; the speculation will always be there. And when you consider that he still looks “tired” after enjoying “periods of rest” in Russia and the long break he took after the elections, there is clearly something going on. Whether he will recover is part of the variable, and even if he does, the speculation will simply remain.

So, then, where does that leave our president? Is he going to stay at the Union Buildings? Or go to jail? And what is the timing on all this, 2019 or before?

A successfully prosecuted court case looks incredibly unlikely. Even in the event that the DA wins its case, somehow I just can’t see it happening. And despite the precedent of the anger and the power of the Mbeki recall, that seems unlikely right now as well, even if the atmosphere is slightly reminiscent of Mbeki’s final few years.

But at some point, Zuma may well need a presidential pardon. Some mechanism to make sure the charges go away; that he doesn’t actually have to worry about them for the rest of his life. This is where the ANC’s succession race gets interesting. One of the major objections to the theory of the Zuma term ending early is that it would start that prematurely – that it could give Cyril Ramaphosa the presidency on a plate – which Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, and others, would surely object to.

One of the problems facing whoever takes over might be that he/she would have to deal with the aftermath of what Zuma critics would probably agree to name “our national nightmare. That was the phrase used by US President Gerald Ford when he took office after Richard Nixon resigned in the Watergate Scandal. Ford had a major problem in that he had not been elected into office; even his own Vice-Presidency was a result of Spiro Angew resigning because of corruption; Ford’s own Vice-President, Nelson Rockefeller, was a Senate appointment. Within a month, Ford took a massive the risk when he publicly pardoned Nixon. It was a moment that in many ways broke his own presidency, but the history was much kinder to Gerald Ford. Just about every scholar and many politicuans agree these days that pardoning Nixon and burying the mud of Watergate was a right thing to do.

Surely in this country, right now – certainly among the middle classes at the very least – there would be an acceptance of Zuma’s pardon as the price of national nightmare ending? There would be the opposition voices that claim it’s just the ANC looking after itself, etc, but actually, in the end, would this not be the best course for all of us? For Zuma to go at some point, to be pardoned, and for all this scandal just to end? For us to start talking about things that really matter for a change, like how to sort out the relationship between business and labour, for example, rather than discuss, again, how Blade Nzimande has blamed the media, again, for Nkandla?

It may seem strange now, considering the anger at Zuma, but surely this is a much better course than struggling on all the way through to 2019, dragging the ANC’s name through the mud in the process, and possibly (probably) losing en route some of the big metros in 2016. And for Zuma himself, this would surely be a sensible course. He could obviously use his health as the reason, there would be no political embarrassment, and the struggle would be over.

Zuma has defined a political era in our country. Even before he became president, he was the MacDaddy of our politics. So it’s unlikely this could happen without his say-so. As a master strategist, he surely has something up his sleeve about how this is all going to end. Some levers to pull when he needs to. The question, really, is whether he wants to fight it out for another five years, or rest into an easy, carefree retirement, at Nkandla. DM

Photo: Jacob Zuma, President of South Africa attends the opening plenary session titled ‘Building with BRICS’ at the World Economic Forum on Africa 2013 in the Cape Town International Convention Centre, South Africa 09 May 2013. EPA/NIC BOTHMA


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