It is beyond question that the presidency of Jacob Zuma, shortly after the start of his second term, is sailing in murky and troubled waters. His role in the Nkandla debacle and the Lesotho coup are but the latest in a series of events which must have his spin-doctor, Mac Maharaj, tearing his hair out in frustration.
The media is full of speculation concerning the longevity of the second Zuma term. Will the spy tapes relating to the 783 charges of corruption, money laundering, fraud and racketeering serve to inculpate or exculpate him? Does the Nkandla saga include a criminal element? Will facets of Guptagate come back to bite Zuma? Does the empire of his family contain the seeds of his destruction as the Aurora liquidators circle his nephew while other relatives are named in dodgy deals? Will Zuma “pay back the money” as demanded by the EFF in vociferous chorus in parliament? Has his Special Investigating Unit scored an own goal by civilly suing the architectural draftsman, appointed by Zuma to oversee and plan the alterations to the Nkandla infrastructure, for the princely sum of R155 million? Is this the same figure that Zuma himself will be obliged to repay? Will he be joined as a defendant in the pending lawsuit which the Special Investigating Unit (SIU) has launched? How will he find the sum of R155 million or such other sum as may be described, a la the Public Protector’s report on Nkandla, as the value of an “undue benefit”? How will Zuma source the funds to repay the costs of the swimming pool, the cattle kraal, the chicken run, the underpass and the amphitheatre – all features of the upgrades to Nkandla that do not appear to have a security component and ought properly to be paid for by Zuma?
Speculation around these questions is rife, but it does not get to the nub of the issues of accountability involving Zuma. Foremost is whether or not he is an appropriate person to lead the country in these economically difficult times. On his watch the economy of South Africa has gone from bad to worse. The Rand has lost value hand over fist. Our banks have been downgraded and the rating agencies warn international and local investors alike that South Africa is no longer the safe investment haven it once was. On his watch South Africa has slid precipitously down the Amnesty International perception of corruption index, so far that the country now languishes at 72nd position, down from 25th when the new democratic era dawned.
The Public Administration is so rotten that cabinet ministers feel obliged to publicly exhort civil servants not to act corruptly in the execution of their duties. The basic education system is in crisis, hospitals are dysfunctional and the rate of delivery of social housing is so slow that many marginalised citizens are bound to die, like Irene Grootboom, waiting for adequate housing while their names edge up a waiting list that is so long that there is little hope of shortening it at the present rate of progress. Over 3,3 million people are informally housed; the NDP informs the nation that there is a social housing backlog of 2,1 million units that will cost some R300 billion to address. The construction industry is plagued by cartels and shoddy workmanship on RDP houses is the order of the day. This has the effect of bringing those in defective houses back onto the lists of inadequately housed in the metropoles and municipalities of the land.
In the midst of all this misery and mayhem two commissions of inquiry have been looking into questionable police activity; the first, the O’Regan Commission has already reported in terms that are critical of the management of the police in Khayelitsha. The Farlam Commission into the shootings at Marikana is likely to be as scathing, if not more so. A third commission sits to inquire into the propriety of the strategic acquisition of arms in 1999. In this the President is named as a wrongdoer, not by an accusing critic, but in a judgment, tested on appeal and not found wanting. The nature of the relationship between him and his former financial adviser, Schabir Shaik has been described accurately as “generally corrupt” beyond any reasonable doubt. There is every prospect that the stalled review proceedings aimed at re-instating the corruption charges against Zuma will succeed and he will get his long-awaited day in court to explain those R500,000 per year payments from Thint, a French arms dealer involved in the arms deals.
The question which should be exercising the minds of those in the National Executive Committee of the ANC, is whether, in the circumstances alluded to above, it is in the interests of their movement and their country to allow a person as conflicted and as compromised as Zuma indubitably is (whether or not he succeeds in extricating himself from the Shaik and Nkandla matters) to continue, in palpably failing health, at the helm of the nation.
The President in the South African constitutional order is both Head of State and leader of the national executive. Put differently, he or she fulfils the role of both Queen and Premier in the UK, or President and Prime Minister in a bygone era in South Africa itself. This means that both ceremonial and executive functions fall to the President to perform. He selects the members of his cabinet who are collectively and individually accountable to Parliament for the portfolios allocated to them. The President himself is also answerable to Parliament, though any Martian observer of the “Pay back the money” chanting by red suited parliamentarians last month would dispute that this is how it plays out in practice in South Africa these days.
The President has the constitutional function of appointing key personnel. Judges, the head of the National Prosecuting Authority (NPA), the chief of police and ambassadors are all presidential appointees. It was President Zuma who appointed Bheki Cele as chief of police and Menzi Simelane as National Director of Public Prosecutions (NDPP). Both appointments were short lived and ended unhappily for the incumbents. Both were chosen for their loyalty to Zuma and not for their ability to fulfil the functions of the posts to which they were appointed. These phenomena, both left to our judges to annul and rectify, illustrate the flaws in persisting with Zuma as president. He has, quite naturally, to protect himself and he tends to put his own interests above those of the country.
Writing in 2007 Mark Gevisser in “The Dream Deferred” reported that “…Zuma and his backers had no respect for the rule of law, and would be unaccountable to the constitutional dispensation the ANC had put in place if they came to power.” Zuma’s “play for the presidency” was “part of a strategy to avoid prosecution” according to the confidants of former President Thabo Mbeki.
There is equality before the law in South Africa according to the express wording of the Bill of Rights; unfortunately Zuma, at great expense to the taxpayer, has proved more equal than most by assiduously avoiding accountability in respect of the matters traversed above and many more. The burning question that should be exercising the minds of those in the ANC NEC ought to be whether their own best interests, as well as those of the movement and the country are served by persisting in the current presidency or whether the time has come to recall President Zuma and replace him with a person who is neither conflicted nor compromised. Far too much time and energy go into dealing with the troubled situation in which Zuma finds himself. It would be liberating to be able to deal with the real issues of the day in a manner which is responsive to the needs of ordinary people instead of being held in the thrall of the personal dramas that swirl around the head of our beleaguered President.
Paul Hoffman SC