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Sun Dec 11 15:48:03 SAST 2016

The Big Read: A long time for the weak in politics

Tony Leon | 2016-02-17 00:39:02.0
Tony Leon. File photo

Long ago when British Prime Minister Harold Wilson was under political siege, he shrugged off cascading crises around him with the phrase, "A week is a long time in politics.''

Decades later, when Conservative cabinet minister John Gummer clung onto office despite calls for his departure, some political wit cruelly rearranged Wilson's words. He declared: "The weak are a long time in politics."

Never have two such closely connected adages from another polity and age so aptly described these past few days in South African politics and the president at the centre of it all.

First we had the shoot-out in the Constitutional Court last Tuesday. There, a clutch of South Africa's legal finest resembled a circular firing squad bulleting the president's credibility.

To be fair, the parliamentary speaker's counsel, advocate Lindi Nkosi-Thomas, attempted to deflect the court's fire but her bullet turned into the ricochet of an admission: "Parliament took a wrong position," she mumbled. She was also forced to admit that our legislature had failed in its oversight function, doubtless to the fury of her client, Madam Baleka Mbete. But that's what happens with a rotten case and with bad instructions.

All this was in reference, of course, to the infamous whitewashing efforts of an ANC-dominated parliamentary committee. It attempted, along with the operatic efforts of the police minister, to rubbish the findings of the public protector on the deeply disfiguring Nkandla saga.

But the key figure in the court proceedings was the recent addition of top advocate Jeremy Gauntlett SC to the normal members of Zuma's legal fire brigade charged with dousing the flames of scandal immolating his presidency.

It was Gauntlett, apparently, who determined that, in order to save Zuma legally, he would have to wound him politically.

In a rapid climbdown from flat denial of any liability he (or Gauntlett) threw in the towel.

Doubtless, Gauntlett realised that without an acknowledgement of error and a commitment to "pay back the money" (or some of it) his client was onto a hiding to nothing. Indeed, as he rather dextrously put it to the court: "This is a delicate time in a dangerous year."

This single and deadly admission has impaled many of the president's comrades - in a decidedly uncomradely fashion - in parliament and the executive.

Gauntlett's intervention reminded me of an event from our own history of constitution-making which gave birth to the very court where this high drama played out last week.

It was 1992; the ANC negotiators at Kempton Park were running rings around the National Party ministers of FW de Klerk. I was on a visit to Washington DC as a guest of the South African ambassador there, Harry Schwarz.

Schwarz was deeply unimpressed with the NP negotiations play. He told me: "I telephoned the president and suggested to him, 'Why don't you go to the Johannesburg [advocates] Bar and hire for yourself four or five of the best legal counsel there? They are likely to get a better result for you.' De Klerk did not heed his ambassador's advice. And the ANC team, under Cyril Ramaphosa, scooped the pool.

By a singular twist of irony, the same Ramaphosa could, as a necessary consequence of Zuma's five-star legal team in court, win it all, in time to come. And, perhaps, sooner than we think.

But what of all those ministers and ANC MPs who first carried the water, in an attempt to douse the Nkandla flames which the public protector lit with her incendiary report, "Secure in Comfort"?

They behaved in robotic fashion. Asked to defend the indefensible, to ignore the constitution and to protect the president at all costs and, in a-take-no-prisoners fashion, they did so without an apparent blink. Now they stand naked before the country and their colleagues. The president's stunning U-turn means the ministers and MPs who sang the party tune now find that they were off-key in a big way.

But those ministers and MPs who tried last year to save Zuma politically ensured that he was deeply wounded, legally, last week in the Constitutional Court.

Then on Thursday evening we had the State of the Nation address. When Sarah Palin was chosen as the vice-presidential running mate of Republican John McCain in 2008, she was so ill-prepared for the role that her television debate with Democrat Joe Biden attracted a huge audience.

This was not because anyone expected her to say anything of interest. It was, as a Washington friend observed, "Just to see if she will fall on her face, fall off the stage or say something truly idiotic."

In our own land of dimmed expectations, South Africans switched on their TV sets on Thursday night to watch something similar. Would Julius Malema disrupt everything? Would the signal be jammed? Would the president be heard at all? Would the security heavies sweep in? Would there be a huge stumble from the podium over the numbers the president would read out?

In the event, the speech sort of passed muster and even won some praise for its focus on the imperilled economy.

But one commentator described Zuma's demeanour from the podium as "zombie-like".

A zombie, of course, is known to be a corpse brought back to life through supernatural intervention. Or, more prosaically, someone who is "completely unresponsive to their surroundings".

Either way, the president and his party walk, weakly, to an uncertain future after a very long past week indeed.

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