Fri Oct 28 19:47:35 CAT 2016

For Zuma, the party is over

Ray Hartley | 04 February, 2016 00:23
The 'fire pool' at President Jacob Zuma's Nkandla homestead. File photo.
Image by: ROGAN WARD

The ebb and flow of political power must play itself out in a democracy.

Eventually even the most determined of leaders must face the electorate. And once the mask of power slips it is remarkable how quickly the tide turns. And how easily the metaphors are mixed.

Jacob Zuma has three years to go until he must hand over the reins to a new president in 2019. The prospect of power changing hands undermines the incumbent. When he is in his pomp, it is easy for those with political ambitions to chart their paths. They must take his side or, at the very least, maintain a stoic silence when they disagree with him.

That is why Zuma was able to marshal his cabinet and the MPs of the national assembly into regiments on the front line of his Nkandla defence.

Parliamentarians wanting promotions within the party or within the bureaucracy - to committee chair, then to deputy minister with a beady eye on a ministry and its trappings - went out of their way to show their loyalty to Zuma.

They were prepared to trample over the public protector and adopt farcical reports which claimed to show that Zuma was without equal when it came to clean governance. They painted him as the innocent victim of ruthless architects, of irresponsible planners, of greedy construction firms - anything to avoid stating the obvious: that Zuma had abused state money to upgrade his private residence.

The Police Minister, Nathi Nhleko, perhaps with one nervous eye on the spinning door at the entrance to the cabinet, went further. To the strains of opera music, he demonstrated how Zuma's swimming pool was a fire-fighting instrument far more efficient than the local fire service.

These prostrations before power might have had career-boosting effects when they were performed, but how embarrassed their perpetrators must feel now that Zuma has made it clear that he wants to pay back some of the money spent on Nkandla.

Zuma's rapid decline from autocrat to armchair president was accelerated in December when he attempted to test the limits of his authority.

In what has come to be known as the "Van Rooyen incident", he made the boldest move of his presidency, firing the finance minister and putting a hand-picked junior in his place. His hope was, no doubt, that Des van Rooyen would pick up where Nhleko had left off and implement his every desire when it came to the state's cash supply. After all, there were only three years of looting left.

It was a terrible miscalculation. Faced with the looming electoral consequences of a total economic meltdown and the disgruntlement of every influential person in society, perhaps even including Nhleko, he was made to back down and appoint Pravin Gordhan.

That was the moment when the mask slipped. From now on, Zuma was no longer in the driving seat. The party had taken back its power.

Emboldened by its success in so doing, it was perhaps inevitable that it would go further and seek to remedy the other great electoral maladies threatening its majority in several metros this year. Key among them has been the fattened goose of Nkandla which has being laying golden eggs in the laps of the opposition for some time.

After years of obfuscation, denial and laughter, Zuma was made to back down and offer another slice of his dignity to the electorate, in the hope that some of them at least would reconsider their displeasure at the party he had once ruled.

It must have been an excruciating moment for Zuma, who effectively admitted his culpability and, perhaps more significantly, that he was no longer the boss.

Even as he made this admission, the Gauteng premier, David Makhura, announced that he was appointing Paul Mashatile to his cabinet. The same Mashatile who had been banished from Zuma's cabinet after he spoke out against e-tolling, a project which the president has defended against all comers. It is clear that Makhura no longer fears Zuma.

It will not be long before more follow him, seeking to curry favour with his likely successors as they attempt to "pivot", to use the in-phrase, towards the next party leader. It won't be long before you look on Zuma with pity rather than disdain.


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