This was meant to be a good week for President Jacob Zuma. In fact, the presidency announced a range of activities for the month of October focusing on the economy and local government. Zuma started off the week on a high note, announcing Lesetja Kganyago as the new Governor of the Reserve Bank, an appointment he has been widely praised for. Then on Tuesday, attention was shifted back to Nkandla and demands that he “pay back the money”. Why is it so difficult to keep the “good story” narrative on track? The answer may lie in ill-conceived attempts to defend the president at all costs, which only end up fuelling new controversies. By RANJENI MUNUSAMY.
Jessie Duarte’s choice of words was interesting. The ANC deputy secretary general had to step in on Sunday to present an address on behalf of the national ANC leadership at the Gauteng ANC provincial conference after President Jacob Zuma failed to turn up.
“There is clearly an attempt to delegitimise our movement in the eyes of the people,” Duarte said. “Despite the many victories that we have had, despite the many great things we have done in the past 20 years, even today this conference has been reduced to the fact that the president is doing work somewhere else.”
Duarte was aware that the media had been let into the conference hall a little while before she started speaking and journalists were eager to pick up the mood among the delegates. Up until then, there did not appear to be much of a bother with the president’s non-presence at the conference. He would not have made a difference to the outcome. But by Duarte drawing attention to Zuma’s no-show, it obviously raised questions as to why he was not there.
A daily newspaper then ran a lead story the next morning claiming that Zuma did not go to the conference because he was angry at Gauteng’s e-toll revolt. So on Monday, when Zuma was about to address the media with a “good story to tell” on the new governor of the South African Reserve Bank, the presidency was simultaneously releasing a statement denying he was angry about the ANC in Gauteng’s e-toll decision.
Perhaps the newspaper would have still run the story even if Duarte had not mentioned that there was controversy about Zuma not being there. But it did not help. The Gauteng leadership also had to deny reports that the president would have been booed if he had shown up. The province is still carrying the burden of Zuma being booed at former president Nelson Mandela’s memorial service at FNB Stadium. So in a misguided attempt to kill off speculation about the president and convince people that there is “no gap between the Gauteng leadership and the national executive committee (NEC)”, what Duarte did was actually point people in that direction.
It is a commonplace these days. The ANC goes above and beyond to try to protect the president through all means possible and what it does is backfire and make the situation worse.
Last week ANC members on the ad hoc committee on Nkandla thought they were doing Zuma a favour by arguing that he had nothing to do with the security upgrades at his homestead and that he should not have to answer questions about the matter. What they in fact did was actually argue that the president was so inept that he had no idea what was happening literally in his own backyard.
By being fiercely opposed to the idea that Zuma appear before the committee to answer the questions he had not responded to in the Public Protector and Special Investigating Unit probes, the subliminal point the ANC members were making was that they did not believe he could. If Zuma were indeed a victim of circumstance and being unfairly blamed for the overspending on the project, surely he would be best placed to make the point. However in trying to “protect” the president from further scrutiny, the ANC MPs were actually showing that Zuma has no credible explanation for what happened.
The ANC again shot itself in the foot on Tuesday when Parliament’s powers and privileges committee met to consider disciplinary charges against Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) MPs for their protest during the president’s question time when they demanded that he “pay back the money”. The ANC is determined that the EFF be taught a lesson for embarrassing Zuma and Speaker of Parliament Baleka Mbete.
A litany of charges was put to 20 EFF MPs for disrupting and showing contempt for Parliament. But EFF leader Julius Malema turned the hearing on its head, declaring that he would make representations to the committee on behalf of his members before any evidence could be presented against them.
In a 25-minute 89-point submission, Malema presented a comprehensive argument as to why their actions were justified and why the disciplinary process against the EFF was illegitimate.
“It is common cause that there was illegality and corruption in the construction of the private residence, and this matter will be settled by courts of law since the president is refusing to pay back the money as directed by the Public Protector. On the said date, we asked the question of when the president will pay back the money because it is our considered view that he should pay back the money,” Malema said.
“All members in this committee are not only witnesses to the alleged misconduct, you actively participated in the singing of Umshini wami song inside the house as it was suspended… Notwithstanding you witnessing the alleged misconduct, you are comfortable to be judges in a matter where you witnessed the alleged misconduct,” he said.
He went on to say: “The complainant is your party boss and any suggestion to differ with her will be career limiting. The complainant is not only a Speaker but a party national chairperson who on Mondays sits with the president and on Thursday attends the ruling party caucus and on other days preside over house meetings where she is expected to be impartial. The complainant is not only a Speaker, but sits in the powerful deployment committee about who becomes a whip, a minister and committee chairperson, it will career limiting for you to differ with her.”
Malema used an ANC NEC statement issued by secretary general Gwede Mantashe as evidence of ANC MPs’ compromised impartiality. “You are aware that your secretary general has instructed you not only to protect the president, but to deal harshly with members of EFF who humiliate and embarrass the president. Gwede Mantashe is not an ordinary person, he is a secretary of the ruling party and he attends your party caucus together with the Speaker every Thursday,” Malema said.
“So you represent the complainant, you represent the subject of the complaint, President Zuma, you represent Gwede Mantashe. You are the witnesses, you are the complainant, you are the prosecutor and you are the judge and the jury. You see nothing wrong in you conflicting role. It is trite in law that you cannot be a judge in your own matter. You are so determined that the basic tenets of common law and natural justice makes no sense in your compromised conflicted role,” the EFF leader said.
Malema declared that however the committee chose to deal with the disciplinary charges, the EFF would not be participating. He then led his MPs in a walkout of the committee. Walkouts by the opposition have now become routine in Parliament, and as has become the norm, the meeting continued with the ANC in the overwhelming majority. What the ANC MPs then did was agree to view video footage of the 21 August plenary when the protest action took place. While the footage showed the EFF’s defiance, it also showed the president’s humiliation and the Speaker mismanaging the situation.
In their effort to punish the EFF – the maximum penalty is a 30-day suspension without pay – what the process did was also drudge up the entire ugly incident, which did not paint the ANC in a very flattering light either. While MPs should face penalties for bringing Parliament into disrepute, the ANC eagerness to defend the president and lash out at the opposition often backfires in this way. Among other things, the protracted footage of that day’s events was a reminder of how Zuma tried to wriggle out of answering questions about Nkandla.
The ANC seems not to have learnt any lessons in the way they have handled the Nkandla matter from the outset. By filibustering and running interference, they actually think they are helping Zuma.
They are not. Zuma’s public image is more embattled than ever with Luthuli House and the ANC in caucus in Parliament tripping over themselves to defend him.
It goes to the extent of undermining positive announcements and the work of government. On Tuesday Zuma was launching South Africa’s fifth industrial development zone in Durban, which is expected to contribute R5.6 billion to GDP. But the news that led the day’s major bulletins was Malema’s scathing attack on the disciplinary process and the EFF’s walkout from Parliament.
A well-run organisation that is disciplined, efficient and competent would have long ago realised that dragging out the Nkandla process means dragging Zuma through the mud too. Inner gears would switch, a good messaging module would come online, strategic and tactical decisions would be made with a final goal in mind. But not this iteration of the ANC leadership. Winning the Nkandla battle, even when the enemies have abandoned the field, seems more important than any casualties that will pile up down the road. And the jury is still out what would be Nkandla battle victory mean for the much bigger war?
One thing is pretty clear right now, though: when the president has friends and comrades like these, who needs enemies? DM
Photo: EFF leader Julius Malema makes his representation to Parliament’s powers and privileges committee in Cape Town, Tuesday, 7 October 2014. Also pictured is Floyd Shivambu (L). Malema later led his fellow MPs out of the disciplinary hearing against them after saying Parliament should instead charge Speaker Baleka Mbete for disrupting presidential question time in August.Picture: Nardus Engelbrecht/SAPA