‘You have to go a long way back to find a cabinet which is so openly at war with itself’
The brilliantly funny 1993 movie Groundhog Day concerns an unpleasant weatherman, played by Bill Murray, who is covering the annual ritual of the groundhog emerging from its hole to predict the arrival of spring.
But he is trapped in a time warp in a small, snow-bound town, and is forced to relive the same ghastly day again and again, until he gets it right.
Groundhog Day – or a series of unwelcome events that recur in exactly the same way – could be the working title for the bizarre and dangerous goings-on in South Africa right now, except for the fact that none of them are funny.
You need to have been under a rock this past week not to have noticed the rush of recent happenings washing over, if not overturning, our ship of state.
So, without rehashing everything, let’s look at the big difference between the events of the past week and the slew of other instalments from the horror show which the Zuma presidency has begun to resemble.
Whether it was firing Finance Minister Nhlanhla Nene last December, or playing musical chairs with the Ministry of Mineral Resources to install Gupta fixer Mosebenzi Zwane and then allowing the same man to lie about a cabinet “decision” on strong-arming the banks, the one constant was the national cabinet’s silent timidity.
The ministers were mum about attempts to discredit outgoing public protector Thuli Madonsela. They kept their counsel when the Constitutional Court held that the president had “violated his oath of office” over Nkandla. They did not demur when one state institution after another was suborned to do the dubious bidding of one man. The roll call of their appeasement and enabling is as long as it is discreditable.
Perhaps realising the seriousness of the situation, or the lateness of the hour as a long night of unconstitutional darkness descends over our southern skies, or perhaps due to some or other instinct for self-preservation, key cabinet members have suddenly allied themselves – not with their appointing authority, President Jacob Zuma, but with his nemesis, Finance Minister Pravin Gordhan.
This, of course, relates to the National Prosecuting Authority’s decision last week to prosecute Gordhan; the finance minister’s court application to out the dodgy dealings of the Guptas, and the battle to stop the public protector from publishing her report on state capture.
In her final dispatch, Madonsela apparently casts the president, one of his sons, a wife, and his two most loyal henchmen, Des van Rooyen and Zwane, in the most unforgiving light.
You have to go a long way back in our, or in world, history to find a cabinet which is now so openly at war with itself.
Certainly, the codes of solidarity and silence have been the most striking feature of all ANC cabinets since 1994.
When the saintly Nelson Mandela offered me a place in his cabinet in 1997, he warned me that I could not dissent from its decisions in public; so I never joined it.
But Sunday’s revelations show that, far from being lined up behind the president as he plays his (final?) hand against Gordhan, the reverse was true for some key players. It has to be pretty serious for this to happen.
No fewer than eight ministers broke ranks on the weekend to denounce the decision by the Hawks and the NPA to pursue Gordhan on apparently spurious and trumped-up charges.
Health Minister Aaron Motsoaledi called it a “declaration of war”. He warned of the dangers of “nefarious political battles”, while Tourism Minister Derek Hanekom described the charges facing Gordhan as “absurd”.
Even Cyril the Silent finally found his voice. In a weekend statement Ramaphosa offered “moral and political support” for Gordhan. Quite how to decode this is not clear . Will Ramaphosa resign if Gordhan is ousted from office? Just how far does this “support” extend? But with events unfolding as quickly as they are, all bets are off, as they say in racing.
Most vociferous of all, though not a cabinet member, is another key player, ANC chief whip Jackson Mthembu, who recently presided over a caucus breakaway which, reportedly, also broke ranks with Zuma.
Mthembu told the Sunday Times: “I can’t be part of an ANC that is politically persecuting a finance minister that has done so well.”
While Mthembu has commendably left himself no wriggle room should the axe sever the last tendons in Gordhan’s neck, he raises the key issue here.
Across the Atlantic, in the US, where its mud bath of a presidential election is winding towards a grisly climax in 20 days’ time, the unconscionable conduct of Republican Donald Trump has led to the most extraordinary re-examination of existing loyalties.
Texas is the reddest of red states: the last time it voted for the Democrats was in 1976, when Jimmy Carter was elected president. Going even further back, the state’s influential Dallas Morning News has backed every Republican candidate for the US presidency since 1940.
Yet two weeks ago, it broke more than 75 years of tradition and endorsed Hillary Clinton for president.
The newspaper asked: “What does it mean to be a Republican today? With Donald Trump as the party’s standard bearer, it’s impossible to say.”
Because Trump has essentially performed a hostile takeover of a party to which, despite being its presidential candidate, he has only fitfully belonged.
Doubtless the party will recover from the train crash he is leading it into.
But Zuma is a dyed-in-the-wool ANC member who joined when he was a teenager and has vowed to remain with it until the end. It will be far harder for the ANC to uncouple from the train the president is driving towards the cliff.
But his party can ask itself the plain question from Dallas: “What does it mean to be ANC today, with Zuma as our standard bearer?”
Trump’s groping and bad-mouthing of women has been the cause of the current outrage against him and his slide in the polls. This led no less a person than first lady Michelle Obama to declare in New Hampshire last Thursday: “This is not normal. This is not politics as usual. This is disgraceful, it is intolerable, and it doesn’t matter what party you belong to.”
Zuma’s brushes with sexual scandal are well documented and the most notorious was known before his election. But now, in a drawn-out endgame, the president is pillaging an entire country and manhandling not just an individual or two, but the very institutions of state.
To reprise Mrs Obama: this is not normal; it is not politics as usual. When does this disgrace end, no matter what party you belong to?
• Leon is a former leader of the opposition. Follow him on Twitter: @TonyLeonSA