You might not have thought it possible, but the Nkandla hole the ANC has dug itself into is actually getting bigger. Apart from having to defend President Jacob Zuma’s role in the security upgrades to the point of irrationality, the ANC-only parliamentary ad hoc committee on Nkandla now has public groups joining the effort to bail him out. One group wants Public Protector Thuli Madonsela fired for reckless conduct. Another group is offering to pay back the money for Zuma, claiming the way the process was handled was “just to disgrace the president of South Africa”. How much more madness can Nkandla bring? By RANJENI MUNUSAMY.
There is a lone voice in the ANC that is currently speaking sense. It is a pity that ANC veteran Ben Turok will not be taken seriously and his advice will be disregarded. Because what the ANC needs right now is for someone to break the trance that has engulfed the organisation and find a way to turn back from the journey to absurdity.
Speaking to the media in Cape Town on Wednesday, Turok, who retired as an ANC Member of Parliament (MP) earlier this year, said there was no doubt that President Jacob Zuma benefitted from the Nkandla security upgrades and should pay up to put the controversy to rest.
“The man [Zuma] was there. He saw what was happening. It was his house. He benefited, even if he didn’t give instructions. I would say fair is fair. I would say, come on be a sport, pay something,” Turok was quoted by City Press.
“There has been a lack of wisdom on the way the ANC has run Nkandla, which means it runs on and on until we are sick to death of the whole story,” he said.
And then some wise counsel: “The ANC lost some support in the elections. That has led to degree of defensiveness. It is good to be defensive, but you must be clever about it. On an issue like Nkandla, it has been a huge waste of energy, and a cost to the ANC and the government. I regret the whole thing.”
Turok is about the only prominent ANC member to say this publicly, although privately, there is growing discomfort about Nkandla among some party leaders. The strategy to try to deflect attention to contractors and officials is clearly not satisfying the public desire for punishment to be meted out for the bad decisions and overspending on the project. The matter is being kept alive by the parliamentary process and with each passing day, the ANC seems to be losing leverage through its handling of the issue.
On Thursday, the ad hoc committee on Nkandla met again to prepare a report to the National Assembly on their findings. The committee comprises only ANC members, after opposition parties walked out in frustration. The ANC refused opposition demands that people involved, including the president, be summoned before the committee to answer questions. The opposition parties have since announced that they would prepare their own report to be submitted to the National Assembly.
The next fight is likely to be whether the opposition parties’ report has any status and can be submitted for consideration in the House. The ANC will no doubt argue that only the ad hoc committee has the power and status to submit a report. And because the presiding officers in Parliament are ANC members and the party has the overwhelming majority in the House, they will probably defeat opposition attempts to table such a report formally.
But this is where the ANC keeps getting it wrong. They might use their majority to win battles in Parliament but they are not winning the perception war on Nkandla. Not even close. No matter how they try, the cannot convince any right thinking person that Zuma was oblivious to everything going on at his homestead and that he should not be made to pay for the undue benefits he received.
There has been talk in various ANC structures about the money being paid back so as to draw a line under the whole sorry episode in order for the ANC to recover. Even in Zuma’s home province of KwaZulu-Natal, his allies and friends have held discussions about a token amount being paid to navigate out of the crisis.
The problem though is that people are worried about broaching the subject with Zuma as he has been adamant that he should not be made to pay. They worry that even suggesting this way out might appear to him as if they believe there was wrongdoing on his part. So rather than risk fall out of favour with Number One, they allow the ANC to be buried deeper and deeper below the pile of muck.
Now there are further attempts by allies and supporters to ingratiate themselves with the president. The chairperson of the Nkandla ad hoc committee Cedric Frolick announced on Thursday that they had received letters from public groups from KwaZulu-Natal on the matter. One is from a group calling itself the Public Members Unit Team that is offering to pay the money on Zuma’s behalf. The letter states that these are members of the public feel issue has humiliated the president and they wish to bring it to a close by paying the money for him.
“We as members of the public believe that how the whole process was handled, how it was announced to the public, how it was investigated and how it is handled by some members of parliament … It’s just to disgrace the president of South Africa,” the letter states. It only identifies an individual called Vumelani Mchunu as chairperson of the group but does not say who the financiers will be.
While this group might have noble intentions (or not) to rescue the president, such a move would only immerse him and the ANC in further scandal. Like with the Sarafina 2 scandal in the mid 1990s, when a mysterious donor bailed out government for the ill-conceived anti-Aids production, this offer is likely to backfire if taken up. The last thing Zuma needs is to be indebted to more business people, who find it difficult to resist the temptation to use his name to further their interests.
The Nkandla issue is also way beyond just reimbursing the state for funds blown on Zuma and his family. It is about accountability and preserving the institutions on which this democracy rests. This includes Parliament and the Office of the Public Protector, both of which have taken a beating in the concerted effort to protect Zuma.
The other letter sent to the ad hoc committee was from a group of “concerned lawyers and educationists” who have taken issue with Madonsela’s report. They have called for her to be fired because of her handling of the Nkandla investigation. In the 18-page document they accuse Madonsela of reckless conduct, and claim she might have contributed to international agencies downgrading South Africa’s ratings. This group seems blinded to the role of Zuma and members of his Cabinet and bizarrely believe that the investigation into the wrongdoing is the problem.
Madonsela has also written to the committee offering to appear before them to give evidence on her Nkandla report. But the committee felt she was acting prematurely by approaching them before they could consider the evidence before them and took a decision to call witnesses. They were meant to consider a draft version of their report to the National Assembly this week but this was not yet ready. The committee is now seeking an extension to the 24 October deadline to report back to the National Assembly, meaning that the issue will drag out longer.
Instead of the three-ringed circus the Nkandla matter has turned out to be, with public groups now climbing in on the action, the ANC should have sought ways to nip the issue in the bud. The only way to do that is to have a frank talk with the person around which this matter rotates. The efforts to protect and defend Zuma are only making him look more compromised and a weak leader.
Someone needs to repeat Turok’s words to the president: “Come on be a sport, pay something.” Until he does, the crisis will continue to spiral and he will continue to be a liability to the ANC. And with no plausible end in sight, there is also no limit to how much damage the Nkandla affair could inflict onto the ruling party. For as long as the ANC is bogged down by it, so too is South Africa. DM
Photo: A general view of the Nkandla home (behind the huts) of South Africa’s President Jacob Zuma in Nkandla August 2, 2012. South Africa’s top official anti-graft watchdog is recommending President Zuma repay some of a $21 million publicly funded “security upgrade” to his private home, which included a swimming pool and marquee area, a newspaper reported on November 29, 2013. Picture taken August 2, 2012. REUTERS/Rogan Ward