OPINION: The changing political winds for Zuma

It sneaked in late on Tuesday night. It came in the form of a statement from the Presidency saying President Jacob Zuma will pay back the money. No-one asked, "what money?" The excessive expenditure on the president's private homestead at Nkandla has become a hash tag of denial and a lack of accountability so much a part of everyday parlance. Zuma has offered a settlement that he seeks to be made an order of court.

The Democratic Alliance and the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) are having none of it, however, and have vowed to continue their Constitutional Court challenge. The Public Protector Thuli Madonsela, whose office had joined the ConCourt challenge specifically on the issue of the extent of the Public Protector's powers, welcomed Zuma's sentiments. It's been a long, hard battle after all.

If one were a cynic, one would question the timing of the president's statement. Last year, the State of the Nation Address (Sona) was disrupted by the EFF, causing public order police to be called into Parliament for the first time in the history of the democratic Parliament. The EFF was demanding answers on Nkandla. And the president laughed. The motif for presidential question time last year was the president evading every question on Nkandla, questioning the powers of the Public Protector to make binding recommendations - and then laughing some more. Who can forget his mocking, " Nkaaaandla"?

In the meantime too there were the president's men and women doing his bidding. It started with the speaker of Parliament who did everything in her power to protect the president from being held to account. The ad hoc committee on Nkandla then simply continued the narrative, buying the idea of a fire pool and kraal as security features hook, line and sinker. Who can forget Minister of Public Works Thulas Nxesi and Minister of Police Nathi Nhleko sweating through a briefing trying to justify the unjustifiable?

So why would the president suddenly have a change of heart? Has he? Well, in a sense, that remains to be seen. If the case goes ahead, it might well have damning consequences for Zuma. His lawyers surely have advised him that he has a weak case? Speaking of lawyers, it remains a perplexing matter that Zuma's personal lawyer Michael Hulley plays such a prominent role within the Presidency. Who appointed Hulley and is he on the state payroll? If so, why? But that seems a minor digression. The president, after all, has many personal legal battles on many fronts and who better to deal with them than Hulley who presumably knows where all the skeletons are hidden?

Realpolitik means Zuma in all likelihood had some sound advice about the meagre prospects of his case and it is an election year, after all. The last thing the president needs is a Sona disrupted because of his legal woes and Nkandla specifically. This past week too alliance partners finally gathered the courage to raise concerns about the president's close relationship to the Guptas. That might be a little too late but nevertheless we have a president who is looking increasingly vulnerable. The axing of Finance Minister Nhlanhla Nene did not help his cause. A local government election that sees the ANC lose key strongholds may change the political winds entirely for Zuma. And he knows that.

It's a pity though that those years have been spent abusing power and undermining democratic institutions. That MPs followed suit and denigrated the Public Protector is a blight on Parliament as a democratic institution. The Deputy Minister of Justice John Jeffrey also wasted no time in arguing that the president was not in fact bound by Madonsela's recommendations.

And this is why it is so crucial for the ConCourt to make a specific finding as regards the Public Protector's powers to settle this red herring once and for all. This, even though the Supreme Court of Appeal has emphatically supported the Public Protector's constitutional place in the Motsoeneng versus SABC matter.

Of course, no action was taken against the president as a result of this breach of the code and s96 of the Constitution that calls upon members of the executive not to act in a way that is 'inconsistent' with their office.

The Nkandla matter is far from over. But for now, the president has kicked for touch. The DA and EFF will no doubt be pushing for the greater issues of accountability to be pursued to draw a line in the sands of the future. They should because the greater constitutional issues are too important not to clarify. This president has done enough damage to our democratic framework and should be held to account for that. A settlement offer would need to be crafted very carefully to include specific timelines and also a quantum of damages, determined very speedily. And, of course, what is needed is a very clear pronouncement regarding the Public Protector's powers.

Anything less would see Zuma getting away with unspeakable excess. Until then, the president remains 'secure in comfort'.

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