OPINION: Has Zuma’s unraveling finally begun?
One might call it a perfect constitutional storm. Tuesday was an extraordinary day for South Africa's democracy. It was not a revolution but it was televised live. Gauntlett v Trengove; legal genius at play in the courts of law before a Constitutional Court that looked anything but pliable under the leadership of Chief Justice Mogoeng Mogoeng.
Those who ever doubted the power of the Constitution may well have wished to watch the Nkandla matter live. The case essentially rests on two legs, namely whether there was an argument to be made for direct access by the parties to the ConCourt and then crucially, the extent of the Public Protector's powers.
For years the country has had to endure President Jacob Zuma arriving in Parliament denying he was liable for any payment related to non-security related features and undermining the Constitution by denying that he ought to follow Madonsela's recommendations.
Yesterday in the ConCourt, when pushed, Jeremy Gauntlett SC made two crucial concessions. The first was that the report by Minister of Police Nathi Nhleko has no true legal significance. And then, in the most significant about-turn, Gauntlett conceded, "we accept that in the present case what [the Public Protector] has directed would be administered action which would stand and bind unless reviewed". He might have intended a sleight of hand with 'in the present case'. But the ConCourt will be left to decide.
And as he said that, Parliament's own case surely also came crashing down. The ANC released a statement saying that the Nkandla matter was 'distorted' by opposition parties and that the president had always sought to cooperate with the Public Protector. Quite clearly, the ANC lives in a parallel universe to the rest of us who have seen the Public Protector's office being denigrated and even her very person attacked. While judgment has been reserved, Madonsela can feel pleased with the ConCourt proceedings this week. She has consistently confirmed the role and function of her office and that will perhaps be her greatest contribution to our democracy. She stood firm in the face of an assault on our constitutional framework.
But the Nkandla matter has been a festering sore on the body politic and the real question is how our country arrived at a point where our president believes he is able to use legal processes to evade accountability and then unashamedly claim the opposite?
The damage has been done as our politics becomes more fractured. While Gauntlett and Trengove, both silver-tongued and brilliant, argued before the ConCourt judges, outside the real political theatre was unfolding. The EFF had marched to the court and Julius Malema was spewing his own brand of rhetoric calling for Zuma to fall, along with the Guptas and their news outlets. Malema, of course, is a master of the political moment. He remains dangerous. Of course, he is right about state capture and the quite brazen way in which the Guptas have managed to insinuate themselves into the very heart of power. Yet, Malema speaks the reckless language of the ilk of tin-pot dictatorships when he calls for the Guptas to be hounded out of South Africa and ANN7 and New Age journalists to be excluded from press conferences. Their safety could not be guaranteed apparently.
While the Guptas may have taken the buying of influence to possibly staggering levels, they are not the only wealthy individuals who seek to influence those elected. Malema and the EFF would therefore do well to start analysing the toxic mix of money and politics in a far broader sense. At local government level the problem is particularly acute and the system gripped by patronage. The question then becomes whether the EFF can speak on the issue with any legitimacy itself?
Sanef has come out strongly against Malema's threats to journalists and it is important that other voices speak out to protect journalists doing their jobs, no matter who pays their salaries or owns the news outlets. A constitutional democracy ought to be able to hold a plethora of views and opinions and citizens should really be left to decide what they wish to consume as daily news.
And so Malema's outbursts and attacks on the media must be called for the acts of constitutional sabotage that they are, even as he claims to defend the Constitution on the streets.
Malema and Zwelinzima Vavi suffer from the same credibility deficit. Zuma was an 'unstoppable tsunami' as Vavi put it, and Malema was going to 'kill for Zuma'. So, let's not forget both individuals had a hand in delivering President Zuma.
Zuma comes to Parliament on Thursday in a weakened position perhaps, but he will be cunning enough to have done the calculations. He is first and foremost a 'party man' and his position within the ANC is unlikely to change dramatically or immediately because of what happened in the ConCourt this week.
Let us make no mistake though, it is the beginning of an unraveling that will be messy and require compromise. The ANC performance in the upcoming local government election will be a barometer to test Zuma's standing in the party in a more concrete manner.
This week Zuma went walk-about in Marabastad and was upbeat as he spoke to street vendors. He declared that 'everyone was happy'. Again, he alluded to the fiction of the media conjuring up citizen dissatisfaction.
One wonders whether Zuma really is that disconnected from what is happening in the country. The World Bank has revised our 2016 growth figure to 0.8%. The reality is that to meet the national development plan (NDP) targets of 14% unemployment by 2020, South Africa needs a growth rate of 5%. Pravin Gordhan will have to pull a rabbit out of the hat on Budget day, as a market downgrade now seems inevitable. Food prices are rising, as are interest rates and that will affect the ordinary citizen even as the drought persists, costing the economy billions. Happy citizens are not unemployed. Again, one has to wonder at this president so disconnected.
Recently released Afrobarometer data show the approval ratings for the president and local government elected leaders at a miserable 36%, down from 64% in 2011, and 56% of black South Africans were found to disapprove of the president's overall performance. This is but a sample, but clearly not everyone is happy.
The president himself holds power uneasily and another sonorous State of the Nation address will only lay that bare to a country who knows this president's time is up- but just cannot fathom when.
_Judith February is based at the Institute for Security Studies. Follow her on Twitter: _ @judith_february