SUNDAY TIMES - Houdini of Nkandla trapped in Gwede's ANC box
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Sunday Times Opinion & Analysis By Tony Leon, 2016-03-27

Houdini of Nkandla trapped in Gwede's ANC box

Harry Houdini, much like President Jacob Zuma, it would appear, got himself into complicated situations for the adrenaline rush that accompanied extricating himself from them.
Image: GETTY IMAGES

You need a hide like a rhino's to survive at the top in politics, and with so many tranquilliser darts loaded with truth serum shot at President Jacob Zuma it's a wonder he's still standing.

But with the equivocal support from his national executive - backing him but investigating his favoured émigré family the Guptas - Zuma lives to fight another day.

One of the Big Five animals, rhinos are also on the "critically endangered" list, while Zuma's prime place on the Big Six of his party seems far more robust, especially as he will be part of the investigations of his own favoured family. However, for his divided party and suffering country, the rhino's vulnerability fits.

Back in 2013, Nkandla and Saxonwold were place names and not bywords for self-enrichment with public money or cronyistic access to high places. That year I wrote a book in which I compared our president to the famed American escape artist Harry Houdini.

I marvelled how, in 2009, and in the period before his election as the country's president, he had "improbably escaped the coils of criminal prosecution for corruption, and before that been acquitted on rape charges and gone from there to the presidency".

But recently I read of the deeper meaning of the "Houdini complex". According to Michael Bloch in his biography of the late, scandal-plagued UK politician Jeremy Thorpe last year, it's not just about getting out of a difficult fix. Rather, it entails "a love of getting into complicated situations for the thrill of extricating yourself from them".

Think about how Zuma displays this complex: he pillaged the criminal justice system to escape prosecution and assume the presidency, and then appointed all manner of dodgy and discredited officials to high office. Their very compromised pasts ensure Zuma's future. To quote Bathibile Dlamini, the minister of social development and president of the ANC Women's League: "All of us ... have our small skeletons and we don't want to take all skeletons out because hell will break loose."

She knows whereof she speaks. Back in 2004 she defrauded parliament of R250000 in the air tickets scam known as Travelgate. But, unlike her boss, she was processed by the criminal justice system and took a quite generous plea bargain - a criminal conviction coupled with a fine.

Back to her boss. Not content with using these devices to obtain supreme power, he made a grab for the national coffers via a hostile takeover of the National Treasury. And then, unfazed by his political near-death experience with convicted criminal Schabir Shaik, he helps, with direct or indirect orders, an émigré family to acquire vast wealth via access to his officials.

And when these officials don't obey orders from the Guptas, they get moved along to make room for more tractable replacements.

Little wonder, then, that in the run-up to the past weekend's meeting of the ANC's national executive committee, party secretary-general Gwede Mantashe warned of the dangers of a "mafia state".

And when these officials don’t obey orders from the Guptas, they get moved along to make room for replacements

The problem for the ANC leadership is that it is fighting a battle on several fronts: no sooner is an attack contained from one quarter than it has to rush to prevent an opponent from breaking through on another flank of the battlefield.

But since the most serious revelations all come from inside the party, the danger of the mafia state recedes. Because, as every aficionado of this genre well knows, the Godfather enforces his writ through terror via the code of omertà, or silence.

Now, as any reader of this newspaper well knows, every Sunday brings forth a new revelation from those who no longer consider themselves bound by the local equivalent of the Sicilian code of honour.

Two weeks ago it was the deputy minister of finance, last week it was the former spokesman of the government. Via social media, it was doughty party veteran Vytjie Mentor. All averred that they had been offered jobs in exchange for favours by Saxonwold's most notorious residents.

Then there was the startling revelation from former minister Barbara Hogan that she had been placed under "extreme pressure" to meet Jet Airways, which wanted in on an SAA route, and to appoint a raft of ethically compromised people into high places in state-owned companies.

Way back in the '70s, the United Party went through its long death throes as the official opposition, also via hostile insider statements and inspired leaks on the front pages of this newspaper.

Incredibly, for a political organisation that dominated governance in South Africa for the first half of the 20th century and then occupied the front rank of the opposition for a lot of the second half, the party had ceased to exist by 1977.

It cannot be predicted that the same fate awaits the ANC. But when the ruling party displays more public fractures than the orthopaedic ward of a hospital, something is amiss.

It is entirely possible that those exposing the influence peddling of the Guptas - and the president's apparent connivance with it - are acting with the highest motives and deserve credit for their bravery.

Perhaps some others, discarded from high office, are playing out another impulse which Mario Puzo made famous in his novel The Godfather. To wit, "Revenge is a dish best served cold".

Then there's also the politician's basic instinct for survival: to sniff the wind and to scent when there's a change of direction in where it's blowing. Or as Pompey the Great reminded ancient Romans: "More people worship the rising than the setting sun." And doubtless there is a lot of manoeuvring around the moment when the sun will set on Nkandla and its most famous resident.

Whatever their motivation, or combination of them, these siren voices will intensify and multiply.

Meanwhile, back at Luthuli House, the ANC has set up a committee to investigate all the claims and contentious allegations. That, in political speak, is usually the equivalent of "file 13" - the graveyard to which inconvenient truths are sent for burial.

But perhaps Mantashe has other ideas.

Perhaps, like Pandora, he intends to open the box.

This appears unlikely with Zuma in the room, but one never knows. In which case, to reprise the most famous line from The Godfather, he might - at the end of the process - go to Zuma "to make him an offer he can't refuse".