Opinionista Gustav Swart 6 April 2016

Naked in Nkandla

In South Park, a naked Eric Cartman attempts to sidle across an empty stage before a packed audience because he believes he is invisible. He edges sidewise, his dingle dangling dolefully, as the gathered multitude watches in mute horror. Cartman can’t pull off the Emperor’s New Clothes and his delusion collapses in shame and outrage, but South Africa has exhausted its supply of both commodities over the last few weeks.

Many people have written about last Friday’s devastating Constitutional Court ruling and its timing in the midst of Guptagate. Moral outrage has been expressed, stalwarts have spoken and politicians have postured. The language of contrition, democracy and patriotism has been used almost by rote as we go through the usual ritual of a public scandal, but the ruling didn’t tell us anything we didn’t already know. The torrid time Jeremy Gauntlett suffered at the hands of the Chief Justices meant that the Writing was on the Wall and our president would be found wanting. Hardly surprising to anyone who has been following the Nkandla scandal, though it was immensely satisfying to watch the third branch of government bring some sanity to the conversation.

That lucid moment didn’t last long as the usual spin engulfed the airwaves and business appeared to return to normal, but the political landscape has shifted and the rules have changed. The usual narrative is playing out that the African National Congress (ANC) wants the president to stay and the opposition wants him to leave, which in turn leads to the idea that this is a conflict between national and party interests. Standard South African fare, but it’s worth asking if even the most ardent Zuma supporters feel it’s worth defending him as various angry birds come home to roost.

Right now, President Zuma is an electoral liability for the African National Congress (ANC) and votes in the bank for the Democratic Alliance (DA) and the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF), who draw from different wings of the ANC. Few people who weren’t going to vote for the ANC will choose to do so because of him, but many people who were going to vote for the ANC might look elsewhere because of him. The fear of a repeat of the Congress of the People breakaway after the last internal ANC fight seems unfounded: maybe some ultranationalistic Zulus attracted by Zuma to the ANC might revert to the Inkatha Freedom Party (or its ANC-friendly offspring), but I don’t think that the president’s departure would cost the governing party votes.

It would cost pride and ego. And so much of this conflict seems to rest on pride and ego. The ANC fights to retain an unpopular leader because the DA and EFF want him gone. “The ANC must never allow itself to be put under pressure by the opposition parties,” says military veterans leader and staunch presidential ally Kebby Maphatsoe. Gwede Mantashe, the Grand Vizier who will play kingmaker or breaker in the days to come, suggests that the opposition was using the possibility of a presidential resignation to start a civil war in the ANC (though I imagine he wants his boss gone more than anyone else in the country).

Gareth von Onselen eloquently identifies the cynical nature of the notion that the DA should stand down in order to let the ANC sort out its own troubles for the good of the country, but that argument only holds if one is thinking in terms of the good of the country – and I don’t think anyone relevant is. While the ANC might claim to want to keep the president and the opposition want him gone, consider for a moment if maybe the opposite could be true.

The DA and the EFF, despite their protestations, want the president in his office smearing more egg over his and the nation’s face. His kneejerk pivot to race and culture as a unifying device over the weekend might have worked in the heady days of Penny Sparrow and Velani Khumalo, but the gambit feels a trifle stale when people’s savings are endangered by shenanigans at the Treasury. His assertion that he is our good shepherd doesn’t sit that well with the sheep any more, though the food parcels are always appreciated (though a little less by the taxpayers). The president is a walking gaffe machine, a symbol of ANC incompetence and corruption… and leaving him off election regalia doesn’t sever his and the party’s connection in the public mind (as an aside, has the president been checked for Alzheimers? His comments are getting odder.)

Of all our scandals, Nkandla is in financial terms among the least meaningful. Its paltry quarter of a billion rand is nothing compared to Guptagate or the Arms Deal or just the normal run-of-the-mill corruption that cripples our fiscus. Its electoral impact is borne of its branding by the EFF and the spectacular mishandling of the issue by the parliamentary committee and governing party in general (“firepool” is a word that will outlast Nathi Nhleko’s career). Along with the pictures of the grinning Guptas, the remote homestead is a public relations nightmare and there are probably enough people in the ANC who know it.

They can’t be seen to act because that would credit the opposition with a “win” and make it look like a weakened governing party acted under duress. I’m not sure how much that matters to voters, but it’s no doubt crucial to the strategic planners at Luthuli House that, if they jettison the president, they do so by choice and at a time of their choosing. Of course there’s the question of which planners are backing which candidate and the ANC doesn’t want a messy succession battle in an election year, but a caretaker deputy president stepping in for a few months a la Kgalema Motlanthe might be one of the options under discussion.

It would have been interesting to see how the public might have reacted to a resignation last Friday. The conventional wisdom seems to be that this would have strengthen the EFF, who “own” the Nkandla and Guptagate issues, but some voters might have felt that their beloved ANC had “reclaimed its soul” and returned to allegedly glorious traditions. Either way, that option is now gone and the party still has to find the most graceful exit for its naked emperor.

It has to be before the judgment on the ongoing Spy Tape saga is delivered. If it goes the DA’s way, then the “capture” of the National Prosecuting Authority will take centre stage and names like Nomgcobo Jiba, Richard Mduli and Shaun Abrahams will join the rogues’ gallery on parade. Shakbir Shaik, still happily playing golf while terminally ill for half a decade, and a certain 783 charges will resurface… all of which will make it even more difficult to ballast the president in a dignified manner before he does even more damage to the ANC brand.

The opposition’s decision to push aggressively for impeachment may have “forced the ANC to close ranks”, but I’m guessing they knew it would. It always does. There’s no chance of their window to claim giant-slaying status closing, but time is not on the ANC’s side. If Cyril Ramaphosa is to be the new president, he will require time to establish a relationship with the electorate as soon as possible, once enough time has elapsed to avoid the appearance that his elevation is a result of scandal and opposition pressure.

The audience is staring in horror, some feigned and some real. If President Zuma goes, my guess would be claims of “health concerns”, something alluded to before, to facilitate a smooth transition and reduce the whiff of disgrace.

Or Ma Ntuli will move back in. Anything to get the fat little naked kid off the stage. DM

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