Zuma unscripted, unplugged, unrepentant
From a man who claims the controversy over Nkandla "does not bother me at all", President Jacob Zuma certainly has extraordinary reactions when he has to talk about it. South Africa has previously seen Zuma become emotional over the Nkandla upgrades while answering questions in Parliament. At an editors' breakfast hosted by the ANC on Monday, a raw nerve was exposed again, leading to an unintentional personal revelation. A gruelling election campaign has certainly taken its toll on the 72-year-old president. But Zuma is confident he will be in his office at the Union Buildings for the next five years, and says delivery and accountability will be better and at greater speed in his second term.
With President Jacob Zuma, it all starts and ends with Nkandla. His life, his return from Robben Island, his numerous marriages, a violent criminal act affecting a loved one, the controversy which led to him being fired and charged with corruption, the upgrades scandal which plagued his presidency, and eventually his retirement. At the last breakfast briefing hosted by the ANC before Wednesday's elections, Zuma said that when the issue of leadership succession arises in five years, he would be in Nkandla, though still participating in ANC activities in his branch.
On Wednesday, Zuma will also be voting at Nkandla, at a school near his home. "It is absolutely important that my vote goes to where it is needed most, to change situation in the area," he said. (The area is currently under the leadership of the Inkatha Freedom Party.)
It was inevitable that Zuma would have been asked about the Nkandla scandal and its impact on the ANC election campaign during a rare interaction with the media, two days ahead of the polls. He did not have a written speech, mercifully, and came ready to engage on anything journalists wanted to ask. Though he might have been expecting questions about the R246 million state-funded upgrades at Nkandla, when it did come, it set him off on a 20-minute expedition which took him where he clearly had not planned to go.
Zuma said neither the inter-ministerial task team report nor Public Protector Thuli Madonsela's report on Nkandla found him guilty of misconduct or corruption. He said the matter was still pending and that he still had to submit a "complete response" to Parliament on Madonsela's report.
"She (Madonsela) does not say Zuma has deliberately abused money of government. The phrase she used is he 'unduly benefitted with his family'. He had nothing to do with it," the president said, talking about himself in the third person.
But as he spoke about the "unfair" depiction of his homestead in the media, and the background to the renovations, the vortex of information about Nkandla was obviously swirling in his head. He said people had forgotten about the allegation that he had tried to source money from a French arms company for an earlier phase of renovations at Nkandla and how an encrypted fax was supposedly evidence of this.
It was a bizarre point to make, especially when the objective was to show he is clear of any wrongdoing.
Zuma ploughed on, explaining why security measures were necessary at his homestead. "My homestead was burned twice during violence and, secondly, criminals came and raped my wife during the time I was still the MEC (in the KwaZulu-Natal government)… It is not theoretical, this issue about security at Nkandla."
It was the first time Zuma had spoken publicly about the gang attack in the late 1990s, for which four men were convicted. It was clear he had not intended to make the revelation. After he said it, Zuma appeared to catch himself, pausing briefly and shifting his feet. But realising it was now out there, he kept with the point. "Those who say I don't need security, it's not like we were dealing with a normal situation. People broke in and raped my wife."
It was a heavy moment - totally unexpected in a pre-election briefing. ANC spokesman Jackson Mthembu, who was chairing the session, looked nervous. After a massive rally on Sunday, at which the ANC displayed its strength and popularity, Nkandla was back in the news cycle.
But Zuma says the Nkandla upgrades gave the ANC no trouble on the election trail. "Nkandla is not an issue that affects ANC voters. It's an issue with bright people, the clever people," he said. Opposition parties had thought that using Nkandla was an "important thing" for the elections, Zuma said, but this had not worked.
"The only people asking about Nkandla have been the opposition and you in the media… I'm not worried about Nkandla, it is not my problem. It's the problem of the people that have been campaigning. In all the provinces I have been to, not a single person has asked me a question."
Zuma said he was not a liability to the ANC because of the scandals surrounding him. He said he did not want to engage in criticism of him and the ANC levelled by people like Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu and former intelligence minister Ronnie Kasrils. "Something has gone wrong with him," Zuma said, referring to Kasrils.
Regarding expressions of disenchantment with the ANC, Zuma said his organisation was "alive" and "dynamic" and that there had always been people historically who differed with the policies of the ANC. "In the ANC, we are fine. If there are issues, we debate them."
The president said he was confident the ANC would win the election overwhelmingly and he would continue to serve as president for the next five years. The message received on campaign trail was "No matter what they say, we'll die with the ANC," Zuma said.
"We want to accelerate the progress of delivery in the next administration. We believe the five priorities we set out in 2009 (unemployment, crime and corruption, health, education and rural development) are still relevant," Zuma said. The National Development gave government "more clarity", and provided accountability in terms of outcomes.
In the past five years, delivery had been faster than in the three administrations before, Zuma said. "We are getting better and better." The ANC's record of delivery has also been better than any other country on the continent, he said.
Asked about persistent hints about possibly making changes to the Constitution, Zuma said his comments had been misinterpreted by the media. He said he had not mentioned the Constitution but said he wanted the ANC to get an "overwhelming majority" to "change certain things that are obstacles". He would not elaborate on what these were. "There are things you need to remove so you can move faster. I won't be specific."
Changing the Constitution in any event was "not taboo" as it had already been amended several times, Zuma said.
The president has not had the best relationship with the media in his first term. Part of the reason for this is that opportunities to interview and engage with him are few and far between. Interviews that are granted are with media houses openly sympathetic to the ANC. Zuma also believes the media "sometimes goes overboard on matters, not just on me but on everyone". He used the example of the display of dead bodies of South Africans. Despite the thousands killed during the September 11 attacks, the US media had not shown a single dead body, he said.
"The media should be free but should also carry responsibility and respect," Zuma said.
This was possibly the last public engagement of the president before the elections and his last word before South Africans hand him another term in power. It has not been an easy ride as the country's number one citizen, and the last four months on the campaign trail has clearly taken its toll on him.
But in spite of all this, Zuma is rearing to go for another five years. Who knows what the new term will bring? The only thing we know for certain is that at the end of it all, Zuma will head back to his beloved Nkandla, the place that brought him joy, pain, scandal and undue benefit. For the rest of his days, he will have to make peace with that.
This column appeared on Daily Maverick.