R Munusamy: No retreat, no surrender on Nkandla
If the ANC harboured the belief that it could quickly shake off the Nkandla debacle and move attention back to its "good story" election campaign, a briefing with editors on peace and security issues on Monday would have put paid to that theory. The ANC's security bigwigs were pelted with questions about the Public Protector's report on the upgrades at President Jacob Zuma's Nkandla residence. All indications are that strong rear-guard action from government is imminent but, in the meantime, the ANC has to contend with the giant squawking albatross called Nkandla threatening to smother the party's election messaging.
Poor Jackson Mthembu. The ANC's national spokesman really thought he could keep his regular breakfast briefings with editors on script. Unfortunately, this week's scheduled briefing was with the ANC's peace and security sub-committee, which includes Justice Minister Jeff Radebe, Police Minister Nathi Mthethwa and Defence Minister Nosiviwe Mapisa-Nqakula - all of whom have a role in handling or are implicated in Madonsela's report on the R246 million upgrades at Nkandla.
Radebe did not turn up at the briefing. This left Mapisa-Nqakula and Mthethwa to carry the Nkandla can, while other ANC leaders present looked on, waiting to answer questions about their part of the "good story". The written statement read by Mapisa-Nqakula talked about the cessation of political violence, the decline in crime levels and the country's peacekeeping missions on the continent. There was also a section on the fight against corruption and how the ANC will intensify this campaign in the next five years.
"The ANC will demand the resignation of ANC leaders found guilty in a court of law," Mapisa-Nqakula said - without laughing or bursting into flames. The ANC's approach to corrupt leaders is, of course, a moving target. At its national conference in Mangaung in December 2012, the ANC resolved that leaders accused of corruption should step down from their positions so as not to damage the organisation while facing charges. Now the position has been watered down so that only those convicted in a court of law cannot serve in any leadership post in the party or government.
In light of the Nkandla bombshell dropped by Madonsela last week, and the ANC's attempts to play it down, the tough talk on corruption predictably fell rather flat at the briefing. The ANC will have the same problem on the campaign trail for as long as Nkandla remains topical, and for as long as the party appears to be ducking and diving from the main issue: that the face of its election ticket was the beneficiary of "excessive" and "unconscionable" state spending.
Mthethwa and Mapisa-Nqakula's strategy at the briefing was to bat away questions, and promise that government will deliver a full and consolidated response to the Nkandla report in due course. Mapisa-Nqakula said the Nkandla report was no longer just being handled by the security cluster but was now a matter for the entire government as it pronounced on its performance.
Mthethwa was hammered by Madonsela for having "failed to apply his mind" when signing the declaration of Zuma's estate as a National Key Point and for not directing the president to implement security measures at his own cost. The Public Protector said this failure "constitutes improper conduct and maladministration". But Mthethwa resisted responding or countering any of the findings against him, save to say "quite clearly there are inaccuracies in that report". Asked about the attempt by the security cluster in November to interdict the Public Protector from releasing her provisional report and the warnings about threats to the president's security, Mthethwa said some parts of the report had been excised due to these concerns. This included issues relating to the security detail, the description of the safe haven (bunker) and the bulletproof windows.
At the ANC media conference on Thursday to respond to the Public Protector's report, ANC secretary general Gwede Mantashe said officials who had gone public with inaccurate information about the Nkandla upgrades must be censored. Mantashe made special mention of National Police Commissioner Riah Phiyega as having described the swimming pool as the "fire pool", saying this constituted a misrepresentation of facts.
"The Minister of Police is expected to take appropriate action in this regard," Mantashe said. Mthethwa did not seem to be aware of or responsive to any such expectation to take action against Phiyega. If anything, he came out in her defence. He said when Phiyega was making the comments, she was not speaking as National Police Commissioner but as an "official" in the government task team. He did not respond to questions at the briefing to clarify this. However, asked by Daily Maverick afterwards about the distinction, Mthethwa explained that Phiyega was merely articulating the government's task team position about the pool and it was not necessarily her view as the police commissioner.
This means the search is still on for a fall person who can take the heat away from the political untouchables. Mthethwa's approach seems to point to a shock and awe response coming soon from government.
In the meantime, the ANC has shifted focus to dressing down its ANC Youth League and student organisation Cosas for disparaging comments they made about Madonsela. Last week ANC Youth League convenor Mzwandile Masina accused Madonsela of trying to "poison the public against the ANC". He also said the Public Protector was not competent to speak on security issues and should step down from her position.
The Cosas secretary general Tshiamo Tsotetsi is reported to have called Madonsela "that woman with the big, ugly nose" while addressing a gathering near Brits. Mantashe has now summoned the two organisations to explain the comments, the ANC said in a statement. "The remarks made and the sentiments expressed do not reflect the views of the ANC and are in contrast with the manner in which we, as an organisation, would expect members of the organisation to conduct themselves in debate."
Mapisa-Nqakula said the statements were sexist as Madonsela was being judged on her looks because she was a woman. "This would not have been done to a man with a big tummy, big nose or big lips," she said. She said people should engage on the contents of the Public Protector's report, not on her looks.
But while the ANC might reign in the two youth organisations, the heat remains on the Public Protector from its structures and allied organisations - reminiscent of the total onslaught approach to The Spear painting in mid-2012. The common line in most of the media statements issues by ANC and allied structures since the release of Madonsela's report is that it is virtually the same as the government task team report and that it absolved Zuma of wrongdoing.
The Young Communist League national secretary Buti Manamela told an election rally outside Rustenburg that Madonsela was "not God and that her investigations and findings are not the Ten Commandments". "This was a trial through the media, and so are many of her investigations. She is driven by the political agenda of the media and of the DA," Manamela said.
The ANC is also trying to fight the perception war on the campaign trail and negative messaging by the Democratic Alliance (DA) on the Nkandla issue. The DA has been running an SMS and email campaign calling for Zuma to be impeached. "The Public Protector's long-awaited Nkandla Report shows, in great detail, just how far President Jacob Zuma went to steal your money to build his R246 million home," the DA email reads.
Mthembu said the ANC has sent a letter of demand to the DA calling on it to retract and apologise for the "false and vindictive" messages by 5pm on Monday. Mthembu said if the DA failed to do so, the ANC would proceed with seeking legal recourse for the DA's contravention of sections of the Electoral Act and the Electoral Code of Conduct. This contravention has also been reported to the Independent Electoral Commission, he said.
"It is our hope that such action will also deter any other political adventurers from following this vexatious and spurious act of the DA," Mthembu said.
But the fact remains that the ANC has taken a heavy hit from the Nkandla scandal and has yet to come up with a response that mollifies the public anger and outrage over the exorbitant spending, violations of procedure and attempted cover ups to hide the details from being exposed.
The attention now shifts to government to see how it counters and challenges the report, and perhaps assist the ANC with damage control. But as it stands, Nkandla casts a long shadow over Luthuli House and will continue to do so for the foreseeable future. In the meantime, the standard reflex to every scandal involving the president is underway: close ranks around Number One and find Number 353,637 to blame.
This column appeared on Daily Maverick.