This week, Members of Parliament will debate President Jacob Zuma’s State of the Nation Address. The way the debate normally goes is that members of the opposition tear into the speech and the leadership of the president while members of the ANC take turns to fawn over Zuma and defend his mistakes. Whoever is chosen to speak for the ANC this week, however, will be cursing themselves. After last week multiple pileup in the Constitutional Court over Nkandla, ANC MPs should be wary about going to the wall for Zuma. But it is far too late to run for cover now. By RANJENI MUNUSAMY.
In spite of his advocate Jeremy Gauntlett capitulating on his behalf in the Constitutional Court last week, President Jacob Zuma seems to be sticking to his story that he is not backtracking on paying back the money for Nkandla. Speaking at The New Age business briefing on Friday morning, Zuma said he had waited for the parliamentary processes to be complete first.
“I do not think there was a change in my view with this matter. The Public Protector’s report said there was nothing wrong. But she did say there (were) a few items she had a view of that did not qualify as security elements and felt the president and family need to pay back a reasonable amount. She did not say how much,” Zuma was quoted by News24.
“She then said the minister of police and minister of finance must determine what needs to be paid,” he said. “There are many times when I asked how much I must pay back, but no one knows. There was a political perception I am not going to pay.”
It might be advisable for Gauntlett to sit down with Zuma and explain to him why he told the Constitutional Court not to place any reliance on Police Minister Nkosinathi Nhleko’s report on Nkandla and why he asked the judges not to issue a declaratory order on the matter. Gauntlett might also need to take the president through Thuli Madonsela’s report again to dispel the notion Zuma has that the Public Protector found “nothing wrong”.
Madonsela found that Zuma was in breach of the Executive Ethics Code and that he benefitted improperly from the security upgrades at his residence. That is not “nothing wrong”. Secondly, Nhleko did not decide on his own to investigate the Nkandla matter while Zuma was a bystander. It was Zuma who submitted a 19-page response to Madonsela’s report, five months after its release, in which he assigned the Minister of Police the task of determining whether he should pay back the money.
“The minister of police, as the designated minister under the National Key Points Act, (must) report to cabinet on a determination to whether the President is liable for any contribution in respect of the security upgrades; having regard to the legislation, past practices, culture and findings contained in the respective reports,” Zuma said in his response.
Madonsela cautioned Zuma in a letter that Nhleko did not have the legal powers to review her decisions and decide whether or not Zuma should reimburse the state. Madonsela told Zuma that by assigning Nhleko that task he “unintentionally requires him to usurp the review powers of the courts”.
Zuma wrote back to Madonsela saying he “respectfully disagreed”. “I consider the Minister of Police to be the appropriate functionary for the purpose and reasons tendered in my report to the National Assembly,” Zuma said in his letter to Madonsela.
Zuma’s claim that Madonsela wanted the ministers of police and finance to determine the amount to be paid is also false. Madonsela said in her Nkandla report that the president should take steps, “with the assistance of the National Treasury and the SAPS (South African Police Service) to determine the reasonable cost of the measures” and then determine a reasonable percentage of that cost, with the assistance of the National Treasury, to be paid back.
The onus was on the president to determine the cost and pay back the money. It was him who opted to pass the buck to Nhleko.
During the three Nkandla ad hoc committee processes in Parliament, members of the ANC could have picked up this anomaly and realised that the processes they were engaged in made no sense. Yet they opted to endorse Nhleko’s report, which even recommended further spending on security upgrades, sent it to the National Assembly and then voted for it overwhelmingly – 198 members voted in favour of the report and 93 against.
But ANC MPs did not only rubberstamp Nhleko’s report, which would have been bad enough. They launched a number of vicious attacks against Madonsela, accusing her of misleading the nation and tarnishing the image and credibility of the government. They also repeatedly shot down arguments by opposition MPs that Madonsela should be called before the ad hoc committee to explain her report. They called the Public Protector’s report “unsound” and “incoherent”.
ANC MP Thandi Mahambehlala condemned Madonsela for “governing herself”. “She is supreme!”
Her colleague Mathole Motshekga condemned Madonsela for calling the terraced area at Nkandla an amphitheatre. “We should not, and cannot, apologise when we say the report of the public protector is misleading and has misled the nation,” Motshekga said.
These MPs join a number of people who now look foolish after the hearing in the Constitutional Court last week. Like National Assembly Speaker Baleka Mbete and Nhleko, they had no idea that after selling their souls and sacrificing their integrity to defend the president, he would make a 180-degree turn in the Constitutional Court.
Since last week, a number of ANC MPs have been expressing their disgruntlement to journalists about being “thrown under the bus”. So far, nobody is willing to go on the record to say the president sold them out. During the State of the Nation Address (SONA) on Thursday night, it was quite evident from the looks on the faces of many ministers and ANC MPs that they were morose. There was hardly any fight back from the ANC benches against the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) when they were interrupting Zuma or against the Democratic Alliance (DA) when they were heckling the president.
But this week ANC MPs will need to step up again to rally behind the president and applaud his low-on-detail SONA. The opposition will no doubt tear the speech to pieces, with DA leader Mmusi Maimane and EFF leader Julius Malema going for the jugular. The EFF interrupted the SONA to demand answers from Zuma about the firing of former Finance Minister Nhlanhla and the devastating consequences for the economy. They will no doubt continue to bludgeon Zuma on that point.
The ANC’s “good story to tell” narrative will be difficult to sell this week with not much to present in the way of achievements and the country in a state of decline.
Zuma is particularly in a compromised state now and ANC members will be well advised to consider where toadying and the rule of the mob landed some of them. They should choose their words carefully as whatever they say can and will be held against them as the great unravelling of the Zuma presidency continues. DM
Photo of President Jacob Zuma by Greg Nicolson.