President Zuma's legal strategy
When President Jacob Zuma ascended to the Union Buildings, we knew that his presidency would be affected by the very tsunami that got him there. We knew that the way he took power from Thabo Mbeki, that the corruption charges he had faced and then suddenly didn't, would play a role in his presidency. It is also common, in many democracies, for the way in which someone climbs to the top of the greasy pole to have an impact on their time in office. There are debts to be paid, revenges to be enjoyed, and policy changes to be implemented. What makes Zuma different, is that his path to power is now more than influencing his presidency: it is defining it.
On Friday, in a burst of emails from the Presidency, Mac Maharaj informed us that Environmental Affairs Minister Edna Molewa was acting president, that several proclamations for the Special Investigating Unit (SIU) had been signed, that the president was still "seized" with the Public Protector's Nkandla report, and that he was also considering suspending the National Director of Public Prosecutions, Mxolisi Nxasana. It was some of the usual Friday fare, a clearing of the inbox before the weekend, and in this case, ahead of a trip to the US by Zuma. (It may also show that Maharaj had a list of items stored up, and once he had made contact with his principal, he was able to send out a whole herd of statements.)
While Molewa being acting president is a normal development (Cyril Ramaphosa being out of the country once again, as what may be part of a strategy to keep him busy as possible), and the SIU proclamations had been in the pipeline for some time, it's the other two statements that are so symbolic of this administration.
The Nkandla statement is once again indicative of Zuma's penchant for delay. This is a report that was published before the elections. Since then we have had no response at all from Zuma to its main findings; that he, and his family, benefitted personally from what we were told were "security upgrades" to his home. And to compound the insult, he seems to not really care. Where on earth have you heard of a sitting president, supposedly the person with the most power in the land, issuing a statement saying he's, more than four months later, still "studying" a report? And this is at least the second such statement - saying exactly the same thing - that Maharaj has put out on the same issue.
The situation around the National Prosecuting Authority (NPA) is even worse, and arguably more serious. That statement refers to Zuma's communication to Nxasana, saying he is considering suspending him, and that Nxasana now has a chance to respond, before he does so. At first blush, it looks like a sign of action, that now, finally, we are going to get somewhere. But actually it's a sign that little has happened since the first announcement, that Zuma was going to set up an enquiry into Nxasana, and his fitness for office. That was over a month ago. In other words, this latest statement is proof that nothing has happened in three and a half weeks.
It gets worse. When the first statement was issued, on a Saturday afternoon nogal, there was no confirmation as to whether or not Nxasana had in fact been suspended. The only other precedent we had was the suspension and inquiry into Vusi Pikoli in 2007, in which both the suspension and the announcement of the inquiry came together. In other words, it has taken us over three weeks just to get clarity on the suspension issue. So up until now, we didn't actually know whether Nxasana was running the NPA or not. He clearly believed he was, and was correct to do so. Not for much longer, it seems.
And we are still no closer to knowing who is going to chair that inquiry. Will it be a political hack, or someone neutral? Both have risks: a political hack shows the real agenda - to get Nxasana out - while someone neutral may well decide to recommend keeping him in office. And one would think it would be irrational for Zuma to have a National Director of Public Prosecutions in office who wants revenge.
But these are just two of the major issues of national importance, where Zuma has sat by and done nothing. Except that by delaying, he has actually acted.
Think of the Zuma spy tapes saga. There he, and the NPA he appears to control nominally, have done exactly the same thing. This is a case that has its roots in a decision by the NPA to withdraw charges against him in 2009, just weeks before that year's election. The DA went to court almost immediately to challenge the decision. To do that, they need the "record of decision" and therefore the recordings. And still Zuma will not let anyone hear them. This is where the logic gets odd. They are supposed to work in his favour. So it seems inexplicable that we cannot hear them.
This all happened before his first term. He's now in his second. It's amazing how well this strategy of eternal delays has worked for him.
It may seem that all of this relates only to issues that impact on Zuma directly. Not so. There is also the Khampepe report, the document that outlines the findings of the two judges, Judge Sisi Khampepe and Deputy Chief Justice Dikgang Moseneke, in Zimbabwe's elections in 2002. The Mail & Guardian went to court to get that report back in 2008. Six years later, they're still waiting. The Zuma administration has consistently refused to release it. And no, there is no cogent reason as to why. Zimbabwe has had other elections since then, so surely there's no point in not releasing it. But not to release it does seem to be consistent with Zuma's strategy of just resisting, keeping it secret, waiting for it to blow over, or for the complaining party to run out of money, or the media, and public, to just run out of patience and lose interest.
When Zuma faced the corruption charges before becoming president, there was much talk of his "Stalingrad" legal strategy. To just resist everything. It worked in that the charges were withdrawn (perhaps through a stratagem that was more political than legal, but the legal strategy gave him time to get the political process working). It seems apparent now that he has taken that strategy with him into office. That word "Stalingrad" seems to symbolise so much about how he has acted as president.
But this doesn't mean that Zuma has actually won anything. All he has managed to do is to withstand the siege. He has managed to survive, and nothing else. This is a different situation to most political systems with a strong presidency. Normally you would expect the president to define events, to have the most important word in public opinion, to be an actor who helps shape events. That is not happening here. Instead, the president has allowed himself to be shaped by events. And the events that have shaped him have nothing to do with policy. Rather they have everything to do with how he became president in the first place.
This means that as a country, we are pretty much still where we were in 2009. Back then the question was whether Zuma was the right person to be president. In so many ways, it still is; as a result, the country is still stuck in a limbo of Zuma proportions.
Stephen Grootes is the host of the Midday Report on Talk Radio 702 and 567 CapeTalk, and the senior political correspondent for Eyewitness News. Follow him on Twitter: @StephenGrootes
This column first appeared on Daily Maverick.