FRIDAY night’s prime-time television performance by President Jacob Zuma, on the back of the devastating Constitutional Court judgment the day before, was something to behold. It is capable of almost endless interpretations, although the path forward remains unclear.
Gone was the customary giggle, the chuckle and the rictus. Zuma’s qualified and exceedingly rare apology was delivered by someone who would rather have been anywhere else in the world, reading from a script that clearly discomforted him. Pointedly, given that the entire country was awaiting it, he arrived seven minutes late. Either a truculent indicator of contempt or an exercise in passive aggression.
Like a drowning man clutching the proverbial lifeline thrown to him by the court, Zuma seized on the issue of motive, with his declaration that “I wish to emphasise that I never knowingly or deliberately set out to violate the Constitution”. This was an evasion even the providers of his original and calamitously wrong legal advice not to accept the public protector’s report and implement its findings could have told him is legally irrelevant. Motive in law is far less important than result.
And in regard to the latter, he simply could not — or would not — accept the single devastating finding of the court: that the man elected as the supreme upholder of the Constitution, described by the court as the “personification of the nation’s constitutional project”, “failed to uphold, defend and respect the Constitution as the supreme law of the land”.
To quote the late, infamous Jackie Selebi, “finished and klaar”.
But if you did not watch the excruciating exercise in presidential blame-shifting that was the front and centre of Zuma’s performance, then it was possible to read the text online. A friend of mine, who is a senior member of the British governing party in the UK parliament and a keen supporter of democratic SA, did so and sent me an e-mail in response on Saturday.
It reads: ” I have just read Zuma’s speech of apology. I do not know if the programme Yes Minister ever came to your attention, with the oleaginous civil servant Sir Humphrey Appleby running rings around both his ministers and the public. The speech was clearly written by somebody too clever by half, beyond parody and shows the terrible judgment disconnect by Zuma.”
Perhaps it was written by the same legal team that conceded the central contention in court, new and refreshed from the usual suspects who peddled the self-ingratiating advice on which he first acted.
Other foreign judgments were harsher: the New York Times on Saturday called for his resignation, the Financial Times parodied Zuma falling into his “fire pool”. The party faithful will mock the foreign comment; the wiser heads in the Treasury will know the ratings agencies read those newspapers and not The New Age.
But the speech, like much else before it, actually is all of a piece. It follows the predictable, wearying response of a head of state who, in a cruel irony given union ally Cosatu’s hatred for the concept, is the outsourcer-in-chief.
On his own version: Zuma outsourced his prudence to his legal advisers; he outsourced his contempt for the public protector to Deputy Defence and Military Veterans Minister Kebby Maphatsoe, who called her, without reprimand or demotion, a “CIA agent”.
He outsourced his moral and constitutional duties on the report of the public protector to his minister of police and a rigged parliamentary committee. He did all this with nary an ethical wobble. Perhaps, long ago and faraway, he outsourced his morality and judgment as well. His outsourcing of responsibility and accountability goes far beyond Nkandla. It both precedes and postdates it. To protect his favoured family from attack and hobble the one man who has a chance of preventing his former wife from succeeding him, Zuma insourced his son as his attack dog against Johann Rupert and Cyril Ramaphosa. They are implicated in some bizarre and ludicrous plot that would be hilarious if the economic catastrophe awaiting us on the president’s watch were not so serious.
There is something deeply and disturbingly childish in all this. Any emotional intelligence primer is a reminder that the difference between adults and children is the expectation of accepting responsibility by the former and the excuse of not doing so by those too young to know the meaning of responsibility.
This proposition becomes ludicrous in the hands of someone who is never responsible for his actions and always has someone to blame for them. The pity of it all, and for the country, is that the president is entrusted with the informal title Father of the Nation. Or, “personification of its constitutional project”, in the court’s words.
Many years ago, when government scandals were not an everyday event, Zuma’s predecessor, Thabo Mbeki, complained to Parliament that South Africans were unimaginative in affixing the Americanism “gate” — as in Watergate — to every item of state malfeasance. I suppose Nkandla, unadorned by any suffix, has cured that complaint. But since the original Watergate scandal led to the resignation of president Richard Nixon, it is perhaps worth revisiting why he resigned his office in 1974.
Nixon, one of the most complex, arguably darker, but more brilliant occupants of that high office, wanted to tough it out and in his own words “fight to the finish” on the basis, like Zuma, that “I am not a quitter”. Of some interest, he also saw himself as a victim of elite conspiracies ranged against him and had, just two years before, been elected by the fourth greatest majority yet recorded in US history.
But he resigned his office when his own party’s senior senators, especially former presidential candidate Barry Goldwater, told him to quit. Of course, the senators would need to have stood alongside him if he was to survive an impeachment vote in the Senate. Only then, and with deep reluctance, did Nixon signal he would go.
For all the rightful celebrations about the sound state of our Constitution after Thursday’s judgment, less celebrated is the fact that senior parliamentarians here, and especially in the governing party, have no such freedom of action or counsel to offer the president. They serve because they were placed on a party list.
The African National Congress (ANC), or at least its secretary-general Gwede Mantashe, was refreshingly forthright on the reason why, despite the incubus he now covers the party with, they are hanging onto Zuma: “The ANC will not tear itself apart.” That’s the reason the president clings to office. But as celebrated cartoonist Zapiro depicts Zuma, he is a political zombie.
At the weekend, a report suggested that US presidential candidate Donald Trump, hoping to win the mantle of Nixon’s Republican Party, is likewise a zombie candidate: “Damaged beyond the point of repair but unlikely to be stopped.”
For South Africans, both in the governing party and outside it, the question to be answered appears in the tagline of an Old Mutual advertisement, ironically for a retirement product: “How much is enough?”
• Leon is a former leader of the opposition. Follow him on Twitter: @TonyLeonSA