So long accountability, hello Zumocracy
It was no big surprise that President Jacob Zuma chose not to respond in detail to the serious findings Public Protector Thuli Madonsela made against him and his government relating to the security upgrades at his Nkandla residence. He kicked the matter into touch, meaning that a few months down the line he will revert to it (and perhaps create further obfuscation).
It is now quite clear that the President of the Republic treats Constitutional institutions, Parliament and the people of South Africa with disdain. His latest move shows that he does not even care about the impact this scandal has on his own party. And as Zuma prepares for five more years in office, the situation is not just shocking, but plain disturbing.
When the corruption charges were finally withdrawn against Zuma in 2009, a few weeks before the national elections, an alliance leader made a remark that was quite chilling. "After the rape case and this, nobody will ever believe any charge against Baba. He can actually shoot someone and he will never go to jail," the leader exuberantly proclaimed.
The remark exposed that leader's fundamental misunderstanding between the rule of law and political invincibility. The fact that it was said by someone in Zuma's inner circle is possibly an indicator of the thinking of people who have influence over the president. Such sentiments, along with Zuma's own predilection to defer responsibility to others, could explain why the president is under the impression he is accountable to nobody, no matter what he does.
Over the past two weeks that Zuma had to contemplate the report by Public Protector Thuli Madonsela, one wonders whether he or anyone in his legal or government entourage considered that this was the worst indictment against the head of state in post-democracy South Africa. If they did, they surely would have realised that a nonchalant letter to the Speaker of Parliament, suspending a full response to the Public Protector's report to a later, yet undetermined, date, is an inadequate reaction.
On Wednesday, Zuma met Madonsela's deadline to respond to her report through Parliament. She had asked that the president report to the National Assembly "on his comments and actions" on her report within 14 days. Zuma, however, simply wrote to Speaker Max Sisulu saying he was aware he was accountable to Parliament, and noted that there were "stark" differences between the reports of the government task team and that of the Public Protector's.
In the letter to Sisulu, Zuma states that the Special Investigating Unit (SIU) is also investigating the Nkandla upgrades and he has written to the unit's head Vas Soni for an update on that probe. Zuma said he would therefore give full and proper consideration to the matter once he received a report from the SIU.
The SIU indicated to the media on Wednesday that it expected to complete the investigation by the end of May. If all goes according to the presidency's plan, this neatly takes the Nkandla matter off the formal agenda until after the elections and establishment of a new government.
The problem, though, is that it does not expunge the matter from national discourse. In fact, Zuma's response only adds fuel to the already raging fire. There is no relationship between the SIU investigation and the Public Protector's report. In fact, with Zuma pointing to an "anomaly" between the government task team and Madonsela's report, it is almost as if there is an expectation that the SIU investigation can reconcile the contradictions. It cannot. And the SIU definitely cannot deal with Madonsela's findings of ethical breaches by the president.
There is in fact no need for Zuma to delay responding to Madonsela's findings against him. If he had any appreciation of the seriousness of her conclusions and respect for the Public Protector's office, a Constitutional institution, and for Parliament, the president would have been eager to clarify these findings. More than that, if he took seriously his own Constitutional obligations as president and his image, he would have immediately wanted to give an explanation to the nation.
But it seems Zuma is unruffled and happy to let the matter ride for as long as possible.
What about the damage to the ANC and its election campaign? Zuma seems just as unperturbed about that. ANC secretary general Gwede Mantashe made it clear that the ANC had a "short" discussion about Nkandla at its weekend national executive committee meeting, and the party decided it would not demand an explanation from the president or interfere with government processes.
Why the ANC feels it cannot hold its presidential deployee accountable is worrying. But the fact that Zuma did not feel the need to take his own party into his confidence and also relieve some of the pressure and negative publicity in the heat of the election campaign shows that his only concern is his own protection. Had Zuma provided some reasonable explanation for his role in the Nkandla upgrades, the ANC would not be in the untenable position it is in now, trying to justify the unconscionable and indefensible.
But Zuma failed the "reasonableness" test long ago.
From the moment the Mail & Guardian broke the story in December 2009 that the president's Nkandla home was to undergo a multimillion rand facelift, it should have rung alarm bells in the Zuma household and in government that this project would be under constant scrutiny. It should have alerted everyone involved that any potential wrongdoing would be exposed. Yet neither Zuma nor any of the ministers and officials involved exercised any caution. On the contrary, processes and prescripts were manipulated and violated.
Madonsela noted this in her report: "The earliest concerns regarding opulent or excessive expenditure at the private residence of President Zuma were expressed on 04 December 2009 by the Mail & Guardian in an article titled 'Zuma's R65 million Nkandla splurge'. Apart from the release of a statement by the Presidency on 03 December 2009, denying that government was footing the bill, nothing seems to have been done by government to verify the 2009 allegations or attempt to arrest the costs which the article predicted would continue to rise."
It is on this basis that Madonsela made the grave findings against the president that he violated the executive ethics code and acted inconsistently with the Constitution. "It is also not unreasonable to expect that when news broke in December 2009 of alleged exorbitant amounts, at the time R65 million on questioned security installations at his private residence, the dictates of sections 96 and 237 of the Constitution and the Executive Ethics Code required of President Zuma to take reasonable steps to order an immediate inquiry into the situation and immediate correction of any irregularities and excesses," the Public Protector's report states.
But Zuma did not think it was necessary to take these "reasonable" steps. And for the same reason, he did not find it necessary to explain to the Public Protector during her investigation, to Parliament, to the nation or to his own party why he allowed his home to become a national scandal.
Next month, Zuma is set to be re-elected as president of South Africa. He will stand in the Nelson Mandela Amphitheatre at the Union Buildings, hold up his right hand and take the oath of office. In the oath he will swear to "be faithful to the Republic of South Africa, and will obey, observe, uphold and maintain the Constitution and all other laws of the Republic".
He will also "solemnly and sincerely promise" to "discharge my duties with all my strength and talents to the best of my knowledge and ability and true to the dictates of my conscience". Zuma will do all this while there are findings hanging over him that he violated the executive ethics code and acted inconsistently with the Constitution.
The situation would be almost comical if it were not so serious. The most solemn of moments in any democracy, the presidential oath of office, will be a pre-violated farce. The institutions which uphold our democracy such as Parliament and the Office of the Public Protector are being undermined by the one person who takes a solemn oath to "devote myself to the well-being of the Republic and all of its people".
And then, for the next five years, this same person will continue to preside over South Africa, in all likelihood still accountable to nobody. It is the redefinition of democracy before our eyes. Brace yourself, South Africa, for the Age of Zumocracy.
This column appeared on Daily Maverick.