Apparently anyone but Zuma must pay

If the African National Congress (ANC) has its way it will be the bureaucrats and contractors who will pay the ultimate price for the Nkandla saga. Again, 'anyone but Zuma'. This past week saw an increasingly defensive ANC seek to defend President Zuma from appearing before the Parliamentary ad hoc committee on Nkandla. That finally ended in the opposition parties walking out and the ANC's six MPs left to deal with the matter amongst themselves.

Quite what the legitimacy of the process will now be remains to be seen. For while the ad hoc committee might be quorate, it surely defeats the spirit of the rules and the Constitution to have only the ANC represented on the committee investigating the maladministration and waste which Nkandla now represents?

The opposition's valiant and well-argued attempts to persuade the ANC to call Zuma before Parliament fell on deaf ears. At issue too was whether the Public Protector's report has primacy and whether her recommendations had to be implemented.

The ANC of course is seeking equivalence between the Special Investigating Unit (SIU) report, the inter-ministerial report and the Public Protector's report. Clearly that must be wrong given that only the Public Protector's office enjoys the complete independence and constitutional protection it does.

Freedom Front Plus MP, the veteran Corne Mulder, gave a brilliant exposition of the constitutional values and legislation in this regard, as did the democratic Alliance's (DA) Mmusi Maimane and the African Christian Democratic Party's steady Steve Swart. Economic Freedom Front leader Julius Malema also warned of the consequences of the ANC's bullying use of its majority. But despite the intelligent efforts by the opposition, it was the ANC which was determined to be disingenuous and do what they had come to the committee to do: protect the president's actions from scrutiny.

Opposition MPs rightly said that they could not be part of such a farcical process and walked out. It left the chair Cedric Frolick in a difficult position but Frolick, no doubt compliant, knows the job he has to do for the executive. And so again, the ANC MPs will put the interests of an individual before the country and the Constitution.

But what is happening at Parliament - the opposition working together in ways which are strategic and create a more interesting dynamic to their oversight of the executive - clearly has the ANC rattled.

How else does one explain the three-line whip in place during the recent motion of no confidence debate against the Speaker with a host of Cabinet ministers in attendance, and even ANC secretary-general Gwede Mantashe in the gallery? Parliament even made the ANC national executive committee (NEC) agenda last weekend.

What resulted though was an ANC statement as absurd as it is dangerous. The statement cautioned against the trend of exposing the president and deputy president to 'humiliation'. In addition, it cautioned against 'continuing this trend of negatively exposing the Head of State to disrespect...'.

One might argue that Zuma has done a decent enough job of bringing the office of the presidency into disrepute without any help. This is, after all, someone who has dragged virtually every democratic institution through turmoil, using public money in order to protect himself from the 700-odd charges of corruption he may face as a result of the arms deal.

Presumably referring to the fracas into which the no-confidence motion descended, Mantashe goes on to say that, "Even after this unbecoming conduct, the President and the Deputy President commit to be accountable to Parliament…and that Zuma and Ramaphosa would engage South Africans on 'various platforms…". This rather pointed line seems to intimate that Zuma and Ramaphosa have a choice about accounting to Parliament. Sadly for Mantashe that is not the way a constitutional democracy works. He is right of course to say that all parties must adhere to the rules of the house. In a democracy that must be a non-negotiable.

But the statement also goes on to question those who wish to amend the Constitution 'by stealth' by removing the Speaker. According to the NEC the Speaker has been duly appointed in terms of the Constitution and therefore 'political analysts' are 'intellectually poisoning' society by commenting on the motion of no confidence. Curiously, the ANC has not applied its mind to s52 (4) of the Constitution that says the National Assembly may remove the Speaker or Deputy Speaker by a majority resolution. The opposition was perfectly within its rights to bring a motion of no confidence in the Speaker. It was hardly done by stealth.

The statement clearly reveals the ANC's defensiveness and strategic inability to deal with opposition politics that threatens its support base.

So, despite the opposition losing last week's motion of no-confidence debate, their argument remains a valid one and even more so in light of the recent NEC statement.

The argument in essence is that Baleka Mbete is incapable of presiding over the debates and other procedural matters in the House given her very senior, active position within the ruling ANC as chairperson of the party. It has been argued that she is incapable of displaying independence given her senior position within the ANC and the untenable conflict of interest this creates between the interests of the ruling party and the interests of constitutional democracy as a whole. In a sense, asking Mbete to balance this conflict of interest is a near impossible task, also given her own personal ambition for the future, which might not have been tempered as yet.

The motion of no-confidence debate unfortunately descended into chaos quite quickly. More's the pity that it was mostly ANC MPs who lowered the tone of the debate so unfortunately, with Bertha Mabe heard shouting an expletive as she walked away from the podium. But the day's greatest vitriol came from Minister of Sport and Recreation, Fikile Mbalula. His speech comparing the opposition to 'neo-liberal fascists' was confusing. It was truly a case of being unable to win the argument and therefore taking the debate to the lowest common denominator by insult and slur.

Mbete survived the day but Bantu Holomisa, that experienced trooper, has also said his party would be referring Mbete's involvement in Gold Fields to the ethics committee. It jogged the memory of the finding by a New York law firm that a R25 million share allocation to Mbete by Gold Fields in the 2010 empowerment deal constituted bribery. This will be uncomfortable for the ruling party and will surely increase pressure on Mbete as well as scrutiny on her implementation of the rules.

It was Maimane who made the important point that the motion of no confidence was 'not personal'. At its heart this motion was about whether our Parliament can shift from being an executive-minded cheerleader for the ruling party to one which represents all South Africans and oversees executive action with the robustness the Constitution demands.

And so, even on the ad hoc committee on Nkandla, the ANC can deliberate without the opposition. But it does so with a legitimacy that is decreasing and looks increasingly like a party which has run out of ideas only to meet the rational argument of the opposition with intellectual poverty.

Judith February is a senior associate at the Institute for Security Studies (ISS).