South Africa

Can Malema save Zuma from #PayBackTheMoney?

By Ranjeni Munusamy 21 January 2015

On Tuesday, The Citizen reported that Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) leader Julius Malema was in talks with the ANC about returning to the ruling party. The report has been denied by both the EFF and the ANC as being untrue. If it were true, though, what purpose would such a move serve, considering there is no cessation of hostilities between Malema and the ANC, particularly President Jacob Zuma? Although the story seems not to have emerged from the ANC, there is a school of thought that drawing Malema back in would defuse the negativity around Zuma and save him from further embarrassment. But Malema is not the answer to that problem. By RANJENI MUNUSAMY.

The 2015 State of the Nation Address will probably be the most watched since FW De Klerk announced the release of Nelson Mandela in 1990. It will not be because the President of South Africa will be making a dramatic announcement that will change the course of history. On the contrary, it will be widely watched to see whether the president will be interrupted by the EFF and confronted about when he will reimburse the state for upgrades at his Nkandla home.

The EFF has made it clear that they are not prepared to let up on the “Pay Back the Money” campaign, and will continue to demand that President Jacob Zuma respond to the question they tried to get him to answer in Parliament in August. They have announced that on 12 February, at the opening of Parliament, they will rise on a point of order during the president’s address to the nation and object that Zuma has not answered the question since it was put to him in August.

Parliament’s presiding officers and officials have already made it clear that this would not be allowed in terms of Parliament’s rules, as there is a set procedure pertaining to the State of the Nation Address. The EFF believes that the matter is of national importance and they would be justified in trying to hold the president to account.

The option the EFF has presented to avoid an interruption to the president’s speech is for the Speaker Baleka Mbete to call a special sitting before 12 February so that Zuma can complete answering the questions. Mbete has declined the request, indicating that there will be opportunities for the president to respond to questions during the parliamentary session. But the EFF says that according to the parliamentary programme issued by the Secretary of Parliament, up to the Easter holidays, there is no president’s question session scheduled. For this reason, they want to use the opportunity of the State of the Nation Address to confront the president.

Zuma has spoken on the issue this week, saying he has never refused to answer questions in Parliament. “I have been hearing those kinds of sloganeering out there. Nobody has said I must come to Parliament [and] I refused,” he said in an interview with the SABC.

“Parliaments are very respected institutions and I think as political parties we should take that into account. It is not a place to play around, it is not a place to shout slogans,” Zuma said. I have always gone to Parliament, it’s just a matter that is ballooned out of process, misleading the country.”

Zuma has steered clear of whether or not he will pay back the money, which would obviously take the wind out of the EFF’s sails if he does. If Zuma did respond to the question directly, instead of trying to obscure the findings of the Public Protector’s report on Nkandla, and hiding behind the other government investigations into the upgrades, it will in all likelihood release the pressure valve on him and the ANC.

As things stand, it seems that neither the ANC nor Parliament know how to protect him from being humiliated during the State of the Nation Address next month. Parliament is already a high security National Key Point, even more so since the upheavals last year. Throwing a bigger security net around the precinct will not be able to alter whatever the EFF choses to do in the House as they are indeed democratically elected MPs.

There is in fact nothing that the Speaker or the ANC caucus can do to stop the EFF from raising another racket. The use of force in response to the EFF will only draw more attention and cause a bigger spectacle than what happened twice last year when the riot police were called into the House. This time, the eyes of the nation, and possibly the world, will be on Parliament, and the move might backfire to channel sympathy and further support for the EFF.

So how can Zuma be extricated from the spot he has got himself, the ANC and Parliament in?

Had the report that EFF leader Julius Malema was in talks with the ANC to go back been true, it would have presented a possible solution. The Citizen claimed that ANC veteran Winnie Madikizela-Mandela was facilitating talks between senior ANC leaders and Malema about his return to the party. This followed her recent public statement for Malema to “come back home”, the paper said.

The paper says EFF MP Mpho Ramakatsa confirmed that Malema was in talks with the ANC, and that he had been “evasive” about his plans to return to the ANC. “However, he did not rule out the possibility of the party going into an alliance with the ruling party,” Ramakatsa is quoted as saying.

Ramakatsa is in the midst of a fallout with the EFF leadership after not being elected into any of the top positions. Last week Malema said at a media briefing that they were aware of plans by disgruntled members to launch a breakaway party. It is possible that this informed Ramakatsa’s decision to confirm the story about Malema planning to return to the ANC as it creates the impression that the EFF leader is going soft, and militant EFF members might then opt to join the breakaway.

The story has, however, been denied by Malema himself through Twitter and the EFF in a media statement. “I will never do that to my people; the EFF remains my only political home now and for the rest of my life. I will be buried with the red flag,” Malema tweeted.

Politics is a fickle business though. Malema made a similar expansive commitment to the ANC in August 2011, when he was running into trouble: “Whatever happens to us, we are ready for that… People should know that even if we are fired tomorrow, our blood will remain black, green and gold.”

ANC national spokesman Zizi Kodwa also said there were no discussions between the ruling party and Malema.

Madikizela-Mandela is not the only ANC leader who thinks it was a mistake to expel Malema. Malema has turned out to be the ANC’s biggest menace and is now threatening land occupations and protests at mines, which has the potential to cause civil instability. But the ANC leadership is also aware that Malema has every intention of hounding Zuma for the rest of the president’s term in office.

So while there might be no formal talks and no possibility of Malema returning to the ANC, there has been thought given to options to get him off the president’s back. There have even been suggestions that the ANC might be able to have the corruption charges against Malema withdrawn if he plays nicely. If this is true, the fact that consideration is being given to manipulating a judicial process for political purposes shows the level of desperation among some in the ANC to protect Zuma.

But Malema will not bite. He is riding high as leader of the second biggest opposition party, and has little to gain by falling in line with the ANC, for now. In any event, trying to dangle a carrot in front of Malema will not solve the “pay back the money” problem.

That dilemma can be resolved in two ways. Zuma can make a commitment to pay some money back to the state, even if he does not acknowledge any blame for the upgrades at Nkandla. He could do so, recognising that he and his family will benefit from the upgrades for the rest of their lives.

The second option would be to go back to the person who recommended the remedial action of paying back the money. This was not Julius Malema but Thuli Madonsela, the Public Protector. Madonsela has been treated with disdain by the ANC and the presidency, with her recommendations being disregarded and obscured by the findings of other investigative reports on the matter.

The way to manoeuvre out of the corner would be for the president and Madonsela to come to a common understanding about the remedial action. Madonsela has shown herself to be reasonable and enjoys enormous public trust through her commitment to act in the public interest. If there is anyone who can assist the president in regaining some credibility and loosening the Nkandla noose from his neck, it is she.

But in order to do so, Zuma would have to admit that Nkandla is a massive problem for him and the ANC. He will also have to confront the prospect of being humiliated in front of the nation, in what should be his big moment to shine. Zuma has already been embarrassed on the world stage when he was booed at Nelson Mandela’s memorial service. It would forever haunt his legacy to be interrupted and heckled during the State of the Nation Address.

Zuma has shown himself not to be a good leader. But it would be a sign of good leadership if he sought a way out, even at this late stage, to prevent Parliament from becoming a spectacle once again. It is either in making a public commitment to pay back some money or coming to an agreement with Madonsela. Otherwise he needs to prepare to succumb to Malema – and that will not be pretty. DM

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