The reaction by parts of the African National Congress (ANC) and the Presidency to a decision by a small group of Democratic Alliance (DA) leaders to walk to President Jacob Zuma’s Nkandla estate appears to have been extreme.
The Presidency itself suggested it was "mischievous", while the KwaZulu-Natal ANC claimed that DA leader Helen Zille would face "violence" from local residents, who would protect their leader.
Several busloads of ANC supporters massed around the estate, while police prevented her from continuing "for her own safety".
The DA and its strategists appear to have taken the action in the belief that Zuma is vulnerable to charges of using state money on his own residence.
As Zuma appears to control all levers of power that relate to the spending on the project — through Public Works Minister Thulas Nxesi, whom he appointed — and claims that the National Key Points Act allows the government to keep the spending secret, the ruling party found itself on the defensive.
The DA wanted to make this a news story and by sending Zille coverage was guaranteed.
But the fact that Nkandla is in KwaZulu-Natal, the heartland of Zuma’s support, allowed the provincial ANC to try to turn the DA’s plan around to show the strength of Zuma’s support.
Zuma’s supporters might also have believed that a show of force would reinforce the claim that no one in the ANC would stand a chance if they challenged him next month at Mangaung.
However, the net effect of the action and counteraction could be to strengthen the hand of the DA.
What first needs to be interrogated are the original claims by the KwaZulu-Natal ANC that it would be local
villagers who would prevent Zille from walking to the entrance of the estate.
That area was actually an Inkatha Freedom Party ward until last year’s local government elections. This would appear to counter claims that local residents have always aligned themselves with Zuma. It is more likely that many of the "local residents" who tried to prevent Zille from using the roads on Sunday, were in fact not from the area, but ANC members brought there from other parts of the province.
Zille’s more recent political narrative has been that the ANC, in general, and Zuma, in particular, no longer believe in democracy. She may well feel that her argument has now been proven.
There was a resonance with the DA’s march to Cosatu House in the Johannesburg central business district earlier this year. There, the violent reaction from trade union federation Cosatu’s members, and the violent rhetoric from Cosatu leaders, seemed to support the DA’s claim that the ANC would never give up power peacefully.
The Nkandla incident could add grist to the DA’s mill.
One of the main goals of the DA has been to attract voters who currently are not bothering to cast their ballots, as they no longer vote for the ANC, but do not want to vote for anyone else. The Nkandla incident may be enough to convince some people to vote for the DA, as it will confirm their worst fears about the ANC under Zuma.
But it is unlikely to convince non-voters to rush to the ANC’s defence and cast their ballot for it — if they believed it was under threat, they would be voting already.
It seems that this incident, and others, while aimed at strengthening Zuma’s hand by defending his turf, could do damage to his party at the ballot box.
This column appeared in The Business Day.