In life and in politics it often happens that a particular event or experience looms large in public consciousness and memory, representing more than the event. It sometimes renders invisible other events, which may or may not be as or more serious than the particular issue.
Such is the case of the Nkandla scandal in South African politics and public life. Since November 2009, it has become an emblem of much that is wrong with the Jacob Zuma presidency.
We now know the president failed to take the country into his confidence on many occasions since then. He has not viewed the allegations with the seriousness they deserved and often failed to reveal information that was required.
When the Nkandla scandal first broke, the building project had not been completed. Many of the constructions that have subsequently caused outrage had not yet begun. Despite public questions, Zuma pressed on and thus ensured that whatever damage to the public purse ensued could not be limited.
In the period that followed, not only did the president fail to tell the truth, but he chose to hide behind others. He told parliament he did not know what was happening in his own private home. He said he did not ask. He was not told and was thus not aware of these constructions. He said it was a project decided on by ministers concerned with public works, security and intelligence. He claimed that even he, as president, could not interfere in decisions about his own security, despite being, as president, the commander in chief of South Africa.
Who can forget what Zuma said in parliament when pressed about funding of the house? On November 15 2012 he told parliament:
“My residence in Nkandla has been paid for by the Zuma family. … All the buildings and every room we use in that residence were built by ourselves as a family and not by government …
“We, as the Zuma family have built our home. ..
“I engaged the banks and I am still paying a bond on the first phase of my home. …
“The Zuma family has built its own home for its own comfort. They have not asked anyone.”…
In other words the President assured the National Assembly that the Zuma family had built his private home, in which they live at Nkandla, using their own funds as well as a bond obtained from a bank and which was still being paid off. Neither the state nor anyone else (except the bank via a bond) contributed to the financing of the non-security related buildings at the Nkandla homestead, he said
There remains disagreement over the claim that a bond rather than a loan for only R 650,000 was provided by a bank. Zuma has never provided evidence of the bond he told parliament he had taken out. If the government did not pay and there is no proof of a bond, who raised the money, a sizeable sum considering the scale of the development? At one stage, Vivian Reddy, the KZN businessperson said he helped Zuma to fund the building project. This was neither confirmed nor denied by the President.
Almost seven years after the construction was first publicly known, Zuma has not shown whether he did in fact build his own house. If he was assisted beyond the initial small bank loan, we don’t know where the rest of the money for funding the non-security upgrades came from. We need to know how Zuma raised the capital. Now that we know the apparent power of those to whom he has incurred debts, we need to know what obligations were attached if he was assisted.
In trying to block scrutiny, we have seen Zuma shifting responsibility, resorting to distortion of cultural practices and suggesting racism in some instances in order to block enquiries. “…People like you do not believe that people like me can build a home…” he said in one of many veiled suggestions that white opposition members do not believe that black people can pay for a house like his. If he does tell us how he came to have the house funded, we may well conclude that he misled parliament in claiming that the Zuma family paid for it. We need, consequently, to know what network paid for it and what was expected in return.
There is another side to this claim to sanctity of a home without clarity over who pays for it. It evokes very painful emotions for many African men who have dearly wanted to build their own homes and not been able to do so. There is research, notably in KZN that shows that marriage amongst African men has been delayed over the last two decades because they cannot afford to pay for a home. Yet the president of the country uses that same emotional desire for a home as a way of avoiding responsibility, making a farce of that painful experience and trivialising it. If, in so doing, the president is himself prepared to defile what he claims to believe in, what else is he prepared to do to save himself?
Shortly before the 2014 general elections, Zuma told a rally: “Black people do not care about Nkandla”. This has been echoed by Blade Nzimande, who claimed that only white people talk about Nkandla.
The Speaker of parliament tried to shut down discussion of Nkandla by evoking African rituals and customs and saying that a kraal is the most sacred place for a family. According to Mbete, by subjecting that to scrutiny and asking questions and trying to reveal facts and quantify costs and sources of funds, opposition parties were defiling the time-honoured sanctity of the place that was their home.
Tired of watching their President acting without integrity, disrespecting and abusing the highest office in the land, South Africans have called for Zuma to go. The calls intensified following the Constitutional Court ruling on the Powers of the Public Protector in relation to the Nkandla Matter.
Zuma must go. Nkandla signifies what is wrong in a broad sense. It is not just about Zuma defying the Public Protector. It is not only about a president who acted in a manner that is inconsistent with the constitution. Nkandla represents more than MPs disregarding their constitutional obligations. Nkandla is also about electoral representatives choosing to ignore the interests of the public, especially the poorest of the poor, whose funds were diverted into this project. It is about the ANC using its majority in parliament to betray the interests of the people of South Africa, whose welfare it claims to hold dear.
In pursuing his personal enrichment, Zuma has set no limits, even risking the stability of the economy as a whole, as seen in the dismissal of Nhlanhla Nene.
We know of his relationship to Shabir Shaik and the transfer of payments for apparently unlawful purposes, as found by Judge Squires. Shaik took the rap, but was released as allegedly being terminally ill, though he seems to be living it up right now.
It is impossible to avoid concluding that Zuma has used his presidential powers extensively to deal with his own personal circumstances. When Shaik left prison, questions remained unanswered about Zuma’s own guilt or innocence. Despite saying for many years that he wanted his “day in court”, he used every trick in the book to avoid court and the potentially unpleasant consequences of his actions.
Zuma must go because the ethics of the person who is president matter. They are fundamental in our society. He repudiates the constitution if it puts him in a difficult corner and he relies on the connivance of those who at this moment support him. One can only imagine what hold Zuma has on the many ANC MPs who are prepared to go to almost any length in evading their constitutional obligations in order to find ways of protecting the president. Is it loyalty, fear or ambition? Whatever it is, we do know that Zuma will not stop at anything to derive a benefit or avoid the consequences of his actions.
Despite claiming that the national liberation struggle is close to his being, Zuma has not hesitated to undermine it. We have seen him using freedom songs in times of trouble, either as way to send messages to those challenging him or to suggest that his trials and tribulations are the result of ongoing persecution of black people or of his continuing to wage the struggle
It is now impossible to listen to “umshini wam”(bring me my machine gun) without thinking of a president who was gyrating and singing triumphantly during his own rape trial. It is impossible now to think of that song only as one drawn on to show how ready people were to fight, defend and die for their freedom. That song has become muddied by the legacy of Zuma. It is linked with his hyper patriarchy and militarism, which were emblematic of his style during the rape trial.
The media have helped to immunise us against understanding the transformation of the meaning of umshini wam by constant reference to it as Zuma’s “trademark song”, instead of seeing how a song of liberation has become one of abuse.
Even when Zuma purports to affirm women, he is offensive, sexist and self-serving. Commenting on the possibility of a woman presidency, he said: “Women now have proven that they are ready to be president”. These are women with whom he fought side by side. Many were leaders in the liberation movement. What has made them suddenly capable of leading? He has also issued advice about why raising children is good training for women for leadership positions
Almost every day parliament meets, it is preoccupied with defending the President or, on the other side, removing him. The country itself and its development processes are being held ransom by this unresolved issue. Insofar as the person or the president and his many misdemeanours continue to dominate public discourse, our attention is diverted and it is harder to focus on what needs to be done.
He has not acted alone. The ANC itself has become severely compromised by Zuma and by people who have for their own reasons found it necessary to choose Zuma over the South African people, their own self respect, their own history and their mandate.
The saga of the Zuma presidency has not only seen him evading legality, but interference in and compromising the integrity of all major law and tax enforcement institutions. State-owned enterprises that are intended to secure revenue for the public benefit have also been undermined to serve personal interests of Zuma, as is happening right now with Denel.
If it is true that the Guptas have exerted so significant an influence on appointments of people to high offices, it again shows that the President acts not in the interest of the country, but to secure benefits that accrue to him and the Guptas. With the departure of some of the Guptas to Dubai, there is no sign that their influence has disappeared.
Nkandla is emblematic of Zuma’s lack of integrity. We need leadership that takes responsibility for their actions, that is trusted, trust being a foundational value for leadership.
It has been necessary to restate the reasons why Zuma must go in order to delineate standards by which we should measure any replacement. In calling for Zuma to go, we seek to recommit ourselves to non-authoritarian and non-chauvinistic leadership and to an end to Zumaism, in whatever form. These go beyond one person. We must disavow the culture of political impunity. We have come to the place now where we can no longer have sober and systematic conversations about the fundamental problems of our country. We need to move on with clarity of vision and a leadership that is beyond reproach.
Raymond Suttner is a scholar and political analyst. Much of his life was spent in the struggle against apartheid and in building the new democratic order. He served lengthy periods as a political prisoner and under house arrest. Currently he is a professor attached to Rhodes University and UNISA and he has authored or co-authored Inside Apartheid’s Prison (2001), 30 Years of the Freedom Charter (1986) 50 Years of the Freedom Charter (2006), The ANC Underground (2008) and most recently Recovering Democracy in South Africa (Jacana and Lynne Rienner, 2015). He blogs at raymondsuttner.com and his twitter handle is @raymondsuttner