Opinionista Sisonke Msimang 27 March 2014

The rise of the sycophants

From Guptagate to Nkandla to Marikana, Jeff Radebe has been at the forefront of shielding the president from the media's questions. He has played a crucial role in spinning acts of maladministration and corruption, and defending the indefensible. In the process, he has become a national laughing stock. Last week Gwede Mantashe and Jesse Duarte joined Radebe as sources of mirthless humour.

As both ANC leaders twisted their minds and contorted their lips to justify Nkandla madness, they joined the Minister of Justice in upholding the cult of personality that will surely spell the beginning of the end of the ANC.

In many ways, Radebe is a familiar character in all political landscapes – the sycophant who does the bidding of the President and who in the process loses the respect of his peers as well as the man he seeks to please the most. If Radebe were the only sycophant, then it might not be worth discussing him. But he isn’t. He is the most prolific defender of wrongness, but he is important because he speaks to a new and growing phenomenon within ruling party politics, which is the growth of the cult of personality.

Reading the Public Protector’s report, one is struck by how many opportunities Cabinet had to tell the president that if he couldn’t see it himself, he was headed for disaster. In particular, the repeated refusal by anyone senior in government to respond to media reports about the costs of building Nkandla demonstrate a kind of paralysing sycophancy. Time and again, the Public Protector’s Nkandla report notes that media reports provided evidence that Nkandla needed closer scrutiny by officials.

In Madonsela’s own words, there was no serious response from the Presidency or the Ministry of Public Works to an article in the Mail & Guardian titled “Zuma’s R65 million Nkandla Splurge. “Apart from the release of a statement by the Presidency on 03 December 2009, denying that government was footing the bill, nothing seems to have been done by government to verify the 2009 allegations or attempt to arrest the costs which the article predicted would continue to rise.”

In many ways this is a stunning admission. The presidency read and was aware of media reports that predicted that the costs would escalate, and it chose to do nothing about them. It chose to pretend that nothing had ever been written, that there was nothing to worry about.

The media has referred to this gross inaction by using an offensively benign word: ‘negligence’. It is more than negligent, and indeed it reaches beyond arrogance. The refusal of senior officials to investigate further on the basis of media reports, speaks to a larger problem, which is that of sycophancy.

It has become acceptable – in fact a badge of honour – amongst many in the ANC to distrust the media. Zuma is notoriously prickly about the press, especially because of the journalistic digging that his personal conduct has necessitated. Despite this, one would have thought that in the small matter of running a state, personal prejudices might give way to the logic required to responsibly manage public processes and resources.

The fact that no one in the top six ANC officials, none of the cabinet ministers, and no one at DDG level or above insisted on following up media reports, speaks volumes about the extent to which an uneasy sycophancy has taken over the party. I say ‘uneasy’ because it is clear that many ANC leaders aren’t comfortable with their decisions. Duarte and Mantashe were visibly uncomfortable in the press conference last week. But they are also deeply invested in protecting the secrets of the ANC – secrets that keep Zuma at the top of the party.

The ANC has got itself in a real jam: it no longer wants Zuma, but it can’t afford to lose him. So it must grin and smile strenuously, defending the indefensible, creating in the process a warped cult of personality that is a powerful mirage.

The fear of what Zuma knows is buttressed by his deep and powerful patronage network. And so the debacle around Nkandla, and the events outlined in the Public Protector’s report, make it clear that the problem of Jacob Zuma’s complete lawlessness, is indeed a problem of the ANC.

While many people would be pleased to see the ANC deal decisively with Zuma, the reality is that there are far deeper problems within the party than the man who sits atop the institution.

Many of us accepted a long time ago that the role of the Minister of Justice under Zuma would be that of chief legal bodyguard. But there was always a sense that the party might come to its senses, revive the spirit of debate and honesty, and challenge its leader. Last week put paid to that idea. In the face of incontrovertible evidence of executive maladministration, Mantashe and Duarte bet against the people – it’s a decision they are likely to regret deeply in the next five years. DM


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