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OPINION: Don't kill the messenger

'The further a society drifts from truth, the more it will hate those who speak it". This George Orwell quote seemed apposite in a week which has seen the president, the ANC as well as its chief whip in Parliament come out guns blazing against the public protector, Thuli Madonsela.

President Jacob Zuma this past weekend questioned Madonsela's assertion that the minister of police was not equipped to make a decision regarding Zuma's liability given that he is a member of Zuma's Cabinet and therefore serves at his behest.

Zuma launched a scathing attack on Madonsela, who then hit back on Monday, saying that her office was being undermined and that she ought to be provided with an opportunity to address the ad hoc committee of Parliament dealing with Nhleko's report. Madonsela also stated that there was no legal basis on which Nhleko could in fact review her findings.

And so the unsavoury spat continues with no winners, leaving our constitutional democracy battered.

Meanwhile, EFF leader Julius Malema, newly-empowered after the fraud trial against him was struck off the roll in Polokwane this week, has vowed to continue the parliamentary battle as Zuma heads to Parliament on Thursday to answer questions.

And so, will it be more of the same? Speaker Mbete, doing everything in her power to protect the president, while ANC MPs do the dance of deference, and Zuma laughs his way out of yet another moment of accountability? That might well be so.

For we are in the midst of a very troubling moment in which the powers of the public protector are being directly questioned by the ANC in general and the president in particular. There appears to be no appetite on Zuma's part to pay back any portion of the excessive expenditure on wastage at Nkandla or, at the very least admit that things went horribly wrong.

One might criticise Madonsela for the way in which she has dealt with the matter through the media, but where the president appears unwilling to engage, and where Parliament continues to aid and abet such a lack of accountability, what choice does she have, really?

A stalemate has been reached and unless there is pressure from within the ranks of the ANC to compel Zuma to change his stance, it seems as if little will shift after Thursday's question time. The ANC has made a calculation that it can ride out the storm, even with a local government election facing it and some pretty dire internal challenges and polling numbers.

Whither the rule of law then if those in power simply do not adhere to the findings of a constitutionally mandated body? It is perfectly obvious to anyone with a smidgen of intelligence that Nhleko's report is an illogical cover up. Yet, the ANC in Parliament will continue to defend the indefensible.

On 27 August Zuma will meet with members of the judiciary after the meeting held by the Chief Justice and Heads of Courts. That was an important show of solidarity between judges, but also an important line in the sand regarding attacks on the judiciary by those who hold political power. The public protector stands alone, however, and does not have the backing of other Chapter 9 institutions. The IEC is in flux and the chair of the Human Rights Commission, the former public protector, Lawrence Mushwana, is not known for his independence of mind.

So, it really is up to the citizenry to make their views known on the issue of Nkandla and the waste and excess it represents, but also against the unprecedented attacks on a constitutional body. For the attacks don't only undermine the office of the public protector but the Constitution itself. There seems to be some difficulty by the ANC in separating the person of Madonsela from her office, which has added to the confusion, and the very personal nature of the criticism of her Nkandla report.

Madonsela serves the country well by standing firm, yet she needs the support of citizens, civil society organisations as well as those in the business community who bemoan the undermining of the rule of law yet are afraid to stick their necks above the parapet.

If our Constitution is under threat in the way that it is now: will we march in its defence and who will do so? The masses of citizens or a few well-meaning individuals? These are testing times. A quick scan of social media shows that there are many who believe Zuma is being persecuted and that Madonsela is indeed an 'agent' of strange forces. Unbelievably incoherent as these arguments are, they represent a view which one cannot ignore and which the ANC and Zuma will no doubt tap into.

It is quite strange and worth mentioning that until the Nkandla matter, government has, by and large respected the findings of the public protector's office. Perhaps it has been slow to implement the remedial action, but such attacks as we are seeing now have not been the order of the day.

And so, that brings us back to this being all about that one individual who needs protecting. But aside from this, we have to also acknowledge that we have, as a society, drifted from truth, as Orwell says. In such circumstances, the truth becomes relative, constitutional principles are revisited and dispatched if those in power find them inconvenient and the messenger is attacked viciously.

So we can expect more of the same in Parliament today and we need to prepare and think carefully about what this ongoing Nkandla stalemate means for a future quite beyond Jacob Zuma.

_Judith February is based at the Institute for Security Studies. Follow her on Twitter: _ @judith_february