You need a rhino hide to survive at the top in politics.
With so many darts, though many are injected with the truth serum, shot at Jacob Zuma, it’s a wonder he’s still walking, never mind standing.
But with the equivocal support –backing him but investigating his favoured émigré family the Guptas, from his national executive, JZ lives on to fight another day or go a few more rounds.
Rhinos are on the ‘critically endangered’ list of the Big Five, while Zuma’s prime place on the Big Six of his party seems far more robust, especially as he will be part of the investigations of his own favoured family. But for his divided party and suffering country, the rhino’s vulnerability fits.
Back in 2013, Nkandla and Saxonwold were place names and not bywords for self-enrichment with public money or cronyistic access to high places. That year I wrote a book in which I compared our president to the famed American escape artist, Harry Houdini.
I rather marvelled how in 2009, and in the period before his election as the country’s third democratic president, he had ‘improbably escaped the coils of criminal prosecution for corruption, and before that been acquitted on rape charges and gone from there to the presidency.’
But just the other day I read of the deeper meaning of possessing a “Houdini Complex”. According to the biographer Michal Bloch, it’s not just about getting out of a difficult fix. Rather, it entails ‘a love of getting into complicated situations for the thrill of extricating yourself from them’.
Think about how Zuma displays this complex: he pillaged the criminal justice system to escape prosecution and assume the presidency; next he appointed all manner of dodgy and discredited officials to high office. Their very compromised pasts, ensure Zuma’s future. To quote ANC Women’s League President and cabinet minister, Bathibile Dlamini. “we all have little skeletons of our own which will come out.”
Actually, she knows whereof she speaks . Back in 2004 she defrauded parliament of R250 000 in the air tickets scam to which the moniker Travelgate was affixed. But unlike her boss she actually was processed through the criminal justice system and took a quite generous plea bargain, with a criminal conviction coupled with a fine.
But back to her boss: Not content with using these devices to obtain supreme power, he proceeded to make a grab for the national coffers via a hostile takeover of the national treasury. And, then unfazed from a near-death like experience with criminal convict Schabir Shaik in years past, he helps along, with direct or indirect orders, an émigré family to acquire vast wealth via access to his officials.
And when they don’t obey orders from the Guptas, they get moved along to make room for more tractable replacements.
Little wonder, then, that in the run up to last weekend’s ANC NEC meeting, party secretary general Gwede Mantashe warned of the dangers of a ‘mafia state.’
The problem now for the ANC leadership is that it is fighting a battle on several fronts; no sooner is an attack contained from one quarter, than it has to rush to prevent an opponent from breaking through on another part of the battlefield.
But since the most serious revelations all come from inside the party, the danger of the Mafia Sate actually recedes. Because as every aficionado of this genre well knows, the Godfather enforces his writ through terror via the code of omerta, or silence.
Now as any reader of this newspaper well knows , every Sunday brings forth a new revelation from those who no longer consider themselves bound by the local equivalent of the Sicilian code of honour.
Two weeks ago, it was the deputy minister of finance, last week it was the former spokesman of the government. In-between, via the social media, it was doughty party veteran Vytjie Mentor. They all averred that they had been job-offered-in-exchange for favours by Saxonwold’s most infamous residents.
Then there was the startling revelation from former minister Barbara Hogan that she had been placed under ‘extreme pressure’ to meet Jet Airways which wanted in on a South African Airways route and to appoint a raft of ethically compromised people into high places in state-owned companies.
Actually way back when, the United Party went through its long death throes as the official opposition also via hostile insider statements and inspired leaks on the front pages of this newspaper in the 1970’s. Incredibly, for a political organisation which dominated governance here for the first half of the twentieth century and then the front rank of the opposition for a lot of the second half, it ceased to exist at all by 1977.
It can’t be predicted that the same fate awaits the ANC today. But when the ruling party displays more public fractures than the orthopaedic ward of a hospital, something is both amiss and adrift.
It’s entirely possible that those exposing the Gupta influence peddling and the president’s apparent connivance with it are influenced by the highest motives and deserve enormous credit for their bravery.
Perhaps some others, discarded from high office, are playing out another impulse which Mario Puzo made famous in his epic novel The Godfather. To wit, ‘revenge is a dish best eaten cold.’
Then there’s also the politician’s basic instinct for survival: to sniff the wind and to scent when there’s a change of direction in where it’s blowing. Or as Pompey the Great reminded ancient Romans, “More people worship the rising than a setting sun.” And doubtless there’s a lot of manoeuvring around the moment when the sun sets on Nkandla and its most famous resident.
Whatever the motivation, or combination of them, these siren voices will both intensify and multiply.
Meantime, back at Luthuli House, the ANC has set up a committee to investigate all the claims and contentious allegations. That in political speak is usually the equivalent of ‘file thirteen’ – the graveyard to where inconvenient truths are sent for burial.
But perhaps Mantashe has other ideas. Perhaps, like Pandora, he intends to really open up the box. Unlikely with Zuma in the room. But one never knows. In which case, to reprise the most famous line from The Godfather, he might – at the end of the process – go to Zuma, ‘to make him an offer he can’t refuse.’
First featured in the Sunday Times