Conspiracies, plots & reactionary forces
If political talk is to be believed, there are two parallel conspiracies against two leading political figures in the country: President Jacob Zuma and Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) leader Julius Malema. One is driven by people in the state and one is driven by forces plotting against the state. Apparently. Both seemingly aim to bring the downfall of the two by immersing them in scandal and probing their conduct. And apparently they were sucked into the vortex through no fault of their own. Sigh. What is this? The year 2005?
Most people do not have President Jacob Zuma's good fortune. Conspiracy theories are very difficult to float, let alone prove. For his troubles though, the conspiracy theory against Zuma was confirmed by High Court Judge Chris Nicholson in September 2008, and on that basis, the African National Congress (ANC) took a decision to recall his arch nemesis Thabo Mbeki from office. Yes, the Nicholson judgment was overturned by the Supreme Court of Appeal, but by that time it was too late. Mbeki was no longer president and Zuma was en route to the Union Buildings.
It will probably never happen again in this generation that a political conspiracy theory is presented as evidence in a high court case - and confirmed. Still, this does not mean people will not attempt to fly wild theories and make them stick.
When Zuma became president, one of his priorities was to install people he trusted in the security services, precisely because of the allegations that those loyal to Mbeki had plotted against him. But after a while, he fell out with his trusted appointees because he remained convinced of a conspiracy against him. Some of these people tried to reason with him that because he was now the head of state, he controlled the entire security apparatus. Even if there were Mbeki loyalists in the system, they would not risk going rogue and getting caught.
But Zuma and his former security ministers preferred the version of the likes of Richard Mdluli, the former crime intelligence boss, who fed their insecurities.
Where the conspiracy gets stretched to the maximum though is over the Nkandla upgrades. As Public Protector Thuli Madonsela pointed out in her report on Nkandla, the media first reported on the upgrades in December 2009, when the estimated cost was R65 million. This gave everyone in the state, from the president to the public works officials, enough time to assess the costs and prevent the project from running out of control. What conspiracy caused them not to? Who conspired to get the cost up to R246 million, and were they helpless to stop it?
Now that the matter has been investigated and the discrepancies exposed, suddenly Nkandla has become a plot against the president himself. Madonsela has been accused of being an agent for the Central Intelligence Agency and the opposition parties and media keeping the heat on the project have been condemned as being part of an "anti-majoritarian liberal offensive".
The conventional wisdom among ANC MPs serving on the ad hoc committee on Nkandla also appears to be that Zuma is an innocent victim who has been unfairly inflicted upon by the upgrades at his homestead. Their argument is that the president cannot be asked to pay back the money for undue benefits because he had no knowledge about the project. According to ANC MP Mathole Motshekga, the president had no powers to veto the upgrades and could only "note" them.
The new conspiracy being floated is that shadowy figures are setting up prominent people against Zuma as part of the new succession battle. Speaking at a birthday celebration for Winnie Madikizela-Mandela last week, ANC Youth League convenor and Deputy Trade and Industry Minister Mzwandile Masina claimed that there was a new plot to create divisions in the ruling party. He said Madikizela-Mandela was being set up as a possible contender against Zuma. He said these unnamed people could go to the extent of "fetching the Pope from Rome" to run against Zuma.
If there is anyone in the ANC who would seriously consider the 78-year-old veteran, who has not even been able to take her position as MP seriously, as a presidential candidate, they have bigger problems than just cooking conspiracies.
But it seems ridiculous theories was the theme at the birthday celebration as the chairman of the Umkhonto we Sizwe Military Veterans' Association Kebby Maphatsoe had his own kite to fly, claiming "reactionary forces" were taking advantage of South Africa's challenges. "These reactionary forces falsely attribute these ills of the society to the ANC," Maphatsoe said.
He said the beneficiaries of ANC delivery were now beginning to question the party. "They are hoodwinked by right-wing forces, which beat the drums of war in peacetime." He used this as a call to arms saying ANC veterans could not fail the organisation. "Not now when the vultures are circling above our heads waiting to feed on their imagined rotting corpse of our revolution."
Conspiracy, it would seem, has become the default defence for anyone accused of anything. When the Sunday Times published arms deal-linked bribery allegations against Zuma and the ANC this weekend, the ruling party's response was that the story was part of a continued attempt "to fan flames of suspicion" against the president. But by what stretch of the imagination could any plotter have schemed to cause a fallout between the French arms company Thales and its fixer Ajay Sooklal to cause the latter to spill the beans on the alleged financing of Zuma and the ANC?
The best way to avoid such a conspiracy is perhaps to avoid travelling and buying clothes on the tab of an arms company. But it seems that it is not only Zuma that invisible figures are plotting against.
On Tuesday EFF leader Julius Malema appeared in court in Polokwane facing charges of racketeering and 52 other counts, including fraud. The case has been postponed to August next year.
Malema has previously claimed that the National Prosecuting Authority and South African Revenue Service pursued him on Zuma's instruction. Speaking outside court on Tuesday, Malema stretched the conspiracy further. He said his lawyer had asked the judge to get an earlier trial date but they were told no earlier time was available. He claimed Gauteng Judge President Dunstan Mlambo was interfering in matters relating to the EFF, and warned the judge that he would complain to the Judicial Service Commission about him.
"They must never think we don't know what they up to. The State is against us... but don't be scared we will overcome," Malema said, according to Sapa. He also claimed that black judges were being paid off and it might be better to have a white judge on the case as they would be less likely to accept pay offs.
Malema is, of course, fearless when making accusations, and is known for his shoot-from-the-hip statements. His comments on Tuesday, however, could qualify as contempt, and while he has become accustomed to parliamentary privilege, he does not enjoy such protection on the streets and public platforms.
Malema is using the same formula that was used to discredit the corruption case against Zuma. However, Zuma had heavy-hitters, such as Malema himself, who could make such accusations on his behalf and did not need to do so himself. In order to maintain his upward climb in politics, Malema needs to rebuff the corruption charges and project himself as a credible opposition voice against the ANC. In order to do so, he is trying to assign blame for his legal problems on Zuma and the government - and now the judiciary.
Malema's supporters are certainly buying the conspiracy; the judges might have a different, less impressed take.
Conspiracies make the world go around, and fascinate the human race. But in South Africa, they are becoming tedious and rather uninspired. Whether it's Zwelinzima Vavi and his troubles in Cosatu or former minister Dina Pule and her sordid love affair, everybody seems to think somebody is plotting against them.
When it comes to Zuma and Malema however, it takes high-octane energy to keep their conspiracy theories turning. It is time to give it a rest and judge the facts on their merits. Until there is one shred of real evidence, outside the realm of conjecture and stitched up tidbits, common sense indicates that they are their own worst enemies and masters of their own downfall.
This column first appeared on Daily Maverick.