Jacob Zuma: The smartest guy in the room?

Tonight as he delivers the State of the Nation Address (SONA), President Jacob Zuma will stand before us with many questions about Nkandla still unanswered. They will dangle over his head like Zapiro's cartoon showerhead. He will push on undeterred, firm in the knowledge that Nkandla has been a successful and deliberate political experiment. Zuma has proven to us all that he is above the law.

For some time now, our country has been obsessed with the fact of Nkandla. We have been enthralled by its existence, its dimensions, its aerial images, its terraces and amphitheatres. The sheer weight of its costs has compelled us to devour column inches in search of the truth. This collective obsession with determining that it exists and then quantifying its costs has blinded us in some ways.

It has prevented us from asking some of the more existential questions about the palace and the political calculations that have gone into its brick and mortar. It has prevented us from recognising the impunity that Nkandla represents is intentional. We have not wanted to believe that Nkandla is the result of a deliberate political strategy on the part of Zuma because that might say too much about us and what we have come to expect from our rulers.

I am suggesting the nation does not just tolerate Nkandla, many of us respect politicians who understand (as Jessie Duarte put it so elegantly yesterday) 'street rules'. Jacob Zuma is certainly one of those.

It should be obvious to any student of South African politics that the rural palace serves a purpose greater than Zuma's need to take care of his large family. The political objective of Nkandla is to make Zuma seem larger than life.

Nkandla is a symbol, a powerful talisman that demonstrates Zuma's invincibility. Nkandla screams to us all that Zuma is the most powerful man in the country. Building Nkandla, and then rising above the technical details of its rule-breaking does not make Zuma seem lawless; to many of our citizens it puts him above the law, well beyond its reach. It also makes it seem futile to try to fight him.

This strategy has been a hallmark of Zuma's time in office. First, he deploys the state machinery to project power, and then he exploits people's historical mistrust of the very same state machinery to avoid consequences. It's bloody smart.

He used this approach during his 2006 rape trial. On the one hand he flexed his muscle by mobilising massive support in and around the court. During the case he used his status as a former Deputy President of the country, entitled to security and a motorcade, to demonstrate his authority. On the other hand, he insisted that the court address him in isiZulu, playing up the idea that he was a simple man, targeted by white men's laws and institutions. Never mind that he was one of the architects of the new legal and political system.

When Zuma takes the stage tonight to deliver his state of the nation address, he will be lent much dignity by the trappings of state power. The military salute, the architecture of Parliament, the flag draped behind him, all of these will allow him to seem presidential.

But he will stumble through yet another speech, delivered at the stultifying pace to which we have become accustomed. In so doing he will continue to play the naïf, at once a victor and a victim. He will stand there with all the questions about Nkandla still unanswered, dangling over his head like Zapiro's cartoon shower. Still, for some he will still cut a proud and powerful figure.

Zuma's ability to benefit from the stature of the office, even as he operates outside the spirit of the laws he has pledged to uphold, make him a dangerous politician.

We might laugh about his speech-making skills, but the joke will continue to be on us. Zuma will turn in another fine performance tonight, a performance in which once again, he gets to play both the prince and the pauper.

This column appeared in Daily Maverick.