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OPINION: A stalemate of the president’s making

Police Minister Nathi Nhleko was due to brief the media on the ' Sars rogue unit' investigation. Unfortunately for Nhleko it started on the wrong note with the government website announcing 'Minister Nene' instead of 'Minister Nhleko'. That must be a rather uncomfortable mistake for Government Communications.

One can always count on Minister Nhleko to do the hatchet job for his president, of course. Nhleko was, after all, the man who single-handedly tried to convince South Africans that when the Public Protector and the rest of us saw a large swimming pool at the president's residence at Nkandla, we were not seeing a swimming pool at all but rather a security feature - a fire-pool. During the Constitutional Court hearing the president's legal counsel was forced to admit that the Police Ministry report into Nkandla was not binding. There is plenty more one might say about the elaborate tissue of fabrication which that report is.

Nhleko's briefing came after Finance Minister Pravin Gordhan has hit back at the 27 questions sent to him by the Hawks. His lawyers have requested further time to consider the Hawks's request and also fully understand which offence is actually being investigated? These are all valid questions, yet no doubt will be met by obfuscation. And so it was no surprise when Nhleko said, "The fact that questions would have been sent to an individual does not mean that that individual is necessarily facing an investigation or is being charged for that matter, because those are formal processes as and when police decide it has got to be so."

Nhleko knows - as does his boss Zuma, who must have had knowledge of the media briefing - that one does not need actual proof of any wrongdoing, but rather simply some suspicion which takes the target (in this case Gordhan) off course. This week Sars also entered the fray by denying any political manoeuvring. It's no coincidence that the Presidency did the same. And so, Gordhan has been left to deal with the Hawks investigation and we are in a de facto stalemate of the president's making. The stalemate may well have the effect of undermining Gordhan in his attempts at reining in his spendthrift colleagues as well as his boss's patronage network. After all, it seems as if Armscor has started the procurement process for a R4 billion presidential jet. It is this sort of undermining of fiscal discipline that South Africa cannot afford ahead of the so-called 'mini Budget' in October.

And herein lies the real danger of the Zuma presidency; Zuma's ability to simply hang people out to dry and not provide the level of support needed to stop the proxy wars within Sars, the National Prosecuting Authority and other democratic institutions. Quite how the ANC will deal with this specifically in an election year remains to be seen.

We have everything riding on it really.

In other developments this week, ANC chief whip Stone Sizani has been 'urgently redeployed'. It turns out that Sizani is going to become our new ambassador to Germany no less. Quite what lies behind the 'redeployment' is hard to say, but Sizani seemed confused in a media interview, saying, "At least nobody is going to say that they are dumping me in Germany as an ambassador because I know South Africa respects Germany, therefore they would not put rejects there." It's quite a telling statement in and of itself amid rumours that Sizani was being redeployed because he was unable to defend Zuma any longer. Others cite 'under-performance'. It's all smoke and mirrors, but what is clear is that the ANC is as divided within Parliament as it is outside of it. No surprises there.

The ANC has a strange way of choosing diplomats though, it must be said. Quite a few politicians who have either fallen on their swords, were an inconvenience to the party or acted in a rather insipid fashion have found themselves representing us abroad. Former chair of the National Council of Provinces, Mninwe Mhlangu, found himself in Washington DC, of all places. That South African embassy seems to be floundering on his watch. But perhaps the United States is not a strategic interest for South Africa?

Speaking of the United States, it's been another strange week in the race for the White House. Barack Obama bravely said that Americans have more sense than to actually vote for Donald Trump as president. In the Beltway there is still some degree of disbelief that Trump has been able to forge his way through 'Super Tuesday' to surely win the GOP nomination. Trump has consistently led with the 'politics of hate' and one can only hope that in a stand-off with Hillary Clinton that she will triumph in the end - pants-suitocracy and all. Despite Clinton being an establishment candidate, she is the only one who will take Trump on and expose the paradoxes he represents. America, like the rest of the world, is changing in demographic and Trump is unable to speak to such shifting sands. Yet, like the rest of the world, that changing demographic is the source of rising tension. One need only look to Europe to see that. Whatever the failings of Clinton, the world probably cannot afford a Trump presidency.

Of course, despite how truly ridiculous Trump sounds and how long the US presidential race is, it does largely happen in the open with candidates slugging it out. The ANC could learn from that too perhaps.

Clearly the 'Sars wars' also feed into a larger succession debate within the ANC, yet no one is prepared to name it or possible candidates for a post-Zuma era. At least in the US if the beyond the pale choice is made, it will be done in the open. That's a thought worth pondering in these parts.

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