President Jacob Zuma’s decision to make a “proposal” to solve the issues arising out of Nkandla is a massive victory for Julius Malema and the Economic Freedom Fighters. It is a lesson in the politics of pressure, and the virtues of asymmetric warfare. Finally, years after this first started, Zuma has blinked. He has felt the pressure. And the danger of the imminent humiliation of being forced by judges, as sitting president, to pay back some of the money spent on his home. It is unlikely Zuma did this because he truly wanted to, which tells us more about his particular situation. By STEPHEN GROOTES.
President Jacob Zuma has denied wrongdoing at his Nkandla home for so long, that those denials have become part of our popular culture. From his ripping-off of DA leader Mmusi Maimane (if you just must, just must, see the Nka-aaandla video again, here you go,) to his repeated claim that he had no idea what was going on at his own home, Nkandla has become a political force all of its own. This means that for him to now propose, himself, out of nowhere, in the middle of the night, some way of settling it, is a good indicator of the pressure Zuma is under.
Of course, he used the old tactic, of kicking for touch, of creating yet another process to delay things. But we’ve all seen that so often that it is just not going to work this time. The pressure is telling.
That pressure is coming from several places. Firstly, the impending court date must have played a role. The Constitutional Court was/is due to hear the EFF’s application on this issue on Tuesday, 9th February. This is familiar territory for anyone who’s paid attention recently. Zuma did exactly the same when NGO CASAC went to court to force him to appoint a new head to the National Prosecuting Authority. Just before that deadline, he suddenly said he would appoint Mxolisi Nxasana to the post (so how did that end, again? – Ed).
The problem that he faced was surely that there is no legal justification for what he had done at Nkandla, and he was going to lose. Imagine the humiliation of it: the head of state being forced to pay money, an amount everyone would now know, for abusing state funds for building his own home.
And imagine then the humiliation of not actually having the money? That would surely hurt, very deeply. It’s a matter of public record that Zuma was strapped for cash all the way through the 90’s. The Shaik Trial illustrated how much money he actually needed (and how he started construction at Nkandla even then, when Schabir Shaik himself was running out of cash). Considering he has had no other proven income than his state salaries since then, this would surely increase his dependence on those with money to give and favours to ask. One could almost wonder aloud if it would cost him another cabinet minister appointment to pay back whatever money he would be forced to pay here.
And imagine the internal politics of it all in the ANC. The problem of the humiliation of Nkandla is more than just personal for Zuma. It has been humiliating for the ANC. Imagine being Nkosinathi Nhleko right now. You’ve made a laughing stock of yourself producing a ridiculous video (again, if you just can’t help yourself, here you go), no matter what you did in your political career up until this point, you will be known as the person who defended the fire pool. And now the person you put everything on the line for has simply got up and walked away, leaving you looking like the empty vassal you always were. As Malema himself once suggested of Hlaudi Motsoneng, he has been used, and then one day left “like a used condom”.
Imagine also being any of the ANC MPs forced to stand up and defend Zuma in the face of the numerous confidence motions brought by the DA. They too, have been hung out to dry. And then there is Dr Mathole Motshekga, the man who chaired the ad hoc committee on Nkandla that was boycotted by opposition MPs. He must be smarting too; he looked silly. And for someone with the qualifications he has, that must hurt.
It may be worth remembering at this point that it was a court judgment that led to the ANC deciding to recall Thabo Mbeki. While that still seems unlikely here, a ruling against Zuma in this case could well have helped those still smarting from the damage caused to the economy by the sacking Nhlanhla Nene. The fact he was reversed on that score and had to appoint Pravin Gordhan as Finance Minister may mean he is actually much more vulnerable than he have ever been.
And surely, more than anyone, he would sense that this was not the time to show more weakness. Remember, the one crucial difference between Mbeki and Zuma is that Mbeki was a former ANC President when the court decided against him. A big, and important difference in the ANC-run South Africa. Power matters.
And then there are the local government elections issues to consider. The ANC’s national spokesperson Zizi Kodwa claimed in an interview on the Midday Report on Wednesday that this issue was not hurting them politically. But in that same interview he said that it was completely expected that opposition parties were not dropping the action because “it has become too politicized”. It can’t go both ways. Either it has been hurting the ANC or it hasn’t. And it has already endured this issue during an election before, in 2014, where it lost several percentage points in the national election. But perhaps more importantly it lost nearly ten percentage points in Gauteng, and we all know that two of the critical battle-grounds this time around are Tshwane and Joburg.
And then there is a question of what this move means for opposition parties. While it was the DA that was the quickest out of the starting blocks on Wednesday, holding a press conference and explaining why it will still go ahead with the legal action, it is surely the EFF who is the big winner here. It is Malema’s curious brand of guerrilla warfare that has won the day. He has used not only the legal big stick on the one hand, but also his ability to bring things to a halt on the other hand. And it has worked. He could now claim, with some justification, that his disruption of last year’s State of the Nation, did actually work. And that his promises to do the same again were effective.
It is also one of the virtues of single-issue campaigning. Malema has concentrated on this issue, for a time every parliamentary proceeding degenerated into a fight about Nkandla. That made it both very difficult for Parliament to actually do anything, and forced ANC MPs, again and again, to defend the indefensible. It is all a huge victory for asymmetrical politics. It has allowed a relatively small party to force the President into an action he would rather not make. One presumes it was smiles all round at the EFF’s Commissars Committee meeting on Wednesday morning.
One also has to wonder what Zuma is hoping for with this proposal. It looks a lot like he is eating the dust right now. As a colleague of mine suggested, perhaps this strategy was actually created some time ago, and he thought Des van Rooyen would be the Finance Minister right now. But surely even Zuma’s legal advisors would have realised the problem now, with Gordhan in charge. And even so, the Auditor-General, Kimi Makwetu, would have to sign off on it. So far, he has shown no signs of signing off on anything he doesn’t like.
But then again, if there is anyone who has looked like they’re on the ropes and come back, it’s Zuma. Maybe he knows something we don’t. Maybe he has a plan we can’t see. Maybe the ANC is about to kick him out. Maybe. Maybe. DM
Photo: South Africa’s ruling African National Congress (ANC) president Jacob Zuma (R) hugs then the ANC Youth League president Julius Malema (L) after a signing ceremony committing parties to the electoral code of conduct in Midrand, north of Johannesburg, South Africa, 11 March 2009. EPA/JON HRUSA