This is not a game
South Africans dare not turn off their phones when they go to bed. Zuma might make an announcement that changes our lives, writes Mondli Makhanya
Remember Istanbul in 2005? May 25 to be exact; Atatürk Stadium to be precise. On that night, Liverpool were chasing their fifth Uefa Champions League crown and Milan were after their seventh. The final had all the ingredients of an epic duel with big-name stars on either side. But by half-time, the contest was all but over, with Milan taking a 3-0 lead. From Johannesburg to Madrid to Liverpool itself, millions switched off their TVs and went to sleep.
Little did they know that within the first six minutes of the second half, Liverpool would equalise, resulting in the game ending at 3-3. The Reds would then go on to win on penalties, making it one of the most remarkable Champions League finals in history. Those who went to sleep at half-time woke up the next day hating themselves for missing a spectacle that they would likely never see repeated.
Word has gone out to all and sundry in South Africa in recent months that phones are not to be switched off or put on silent when one goes to bed.
Should you be the one who ignores this advice, you risk missing out on late-night statements from the nation’s highest office informing citizens of President Jacob Zuma’s latest epiphany, and what he has decided to do based on this moment of clarity. If it is not hiring or firing a minister, then he is making some other dramatic announcement. Whether this new phenomenon is linked to a change in “special projects adviser” (those gentlemen and women who conduct most of their business after dark) is a mystery.
If you were asleep or your phone was switched off before 10.20pm on Wednesday, you would have missed out on Zuma telling us that, after years of singing Shaggy’s chart-topping hit, It Wasn’t Me, he had had a moment of clarity and decided that he should give back to the taxpayer some of the money splurged on his Nkandla residence. You would have woken up the following morning thinking April Fools’ Day came early.
Inasmuch as lovers of the beautiful game swear by Bill Shankly’s assertion that “football is not a matter of life and death ... it is much more important than that”, the truth is that it is just a game. The night in Istanbul was just a game and would not have changed the course of world affairs.
Governing a country is, however, not a game. But to Zuma and those around him, it is just that. With a grin, a guffaw and a giggle, the president makes flippant life and death decisions on behalf of the populace and informs them of his epiphanies via late-night missives.
This is how the handling of the Nkandla matter should be seen. At no point did Zuma and his coterie take seriously the fiscal, legal, constitutional, political and social cohesion implications of dragging out the Nkandla affair. They were willing to destroy the very foundations of our democracy to defend the indefensible. Pyrrhic victories were celebrated as the governing party used its parliamentary majority and control of state resources to outfox and out-muscle those who wanted real accountability. Bizarre words and concepts were introduced into the national lexicon to bamboozle the public and dribble past opponents.
It was all a game. That is why it was so easy for Zuma to laugh and make a mockery of our institutions of governance. That is also why it was possible for him to believe that a statement at 10.20pm on a Wednesday would be greeted with gratitude and applause by the people of the republic.
He did not foresee that this eleventh-hour concession (and it was almost literally the eleventh hour) would spark further outrage from a nation that was tired of being toyed with. So when he woke up the following day expecting applause and ululation, he instead found that his game was up.
Like many leaders who stay on beyond their sell-by date, Zuma is failing to recognise this. He does not recognise that today is a long, long way away from December 2012, when he trounced his then deputy Kgalema Motlanthe at the ANC’s elective conference in Mangaung. That conference was the zenith of Zuma’s power. It was more significant than his victory over Thabo Mbeki in Polokwane in 2007 and his ascension to the country’s presidency in 2009. The 2007 victory was a triumph for all those who hated Mbeki, with Zuma as their rallying point.
In Mangaung, he consolidated his power, turfing out those who were not totally loyal and packing the national executive committee (NEC) with his loyalists. The scandals that had plagued his first few years as president were water off a duck’s back.
The loyalist NEC swatted away any criticisms and crushed any internal dissent. Even the 2013 Gupta landing at Air Force Base Waterkloof, the most glaring indication that the Saxonwold family was running the country, did not shake Zuma.
Things changed rapidly after the 2014 election. The onset of his lame duck phase, internecine strife in ANC ranks, the entry of the Economic Freedom Fighters on to the political scene, his carefree accumulation of scandals and the residue of the booing at Nelson Mandela’s memorial service the previous December all combined to make him vulnerable. The derision and ridicule he received on viral media chipped away at his standing as people at even the lowest rungs of society joined in to laugh at the jester king.
But the greatest contributor to Zuma’s decline in power was Zuma himself. It was his arrogant and unfeeling reaction to public sentiment on the Nkandla matter and his tongue-and-saliva relationship with the Guptas.
With its escalating price tag, Nkandla became the physical embodiment of corruption. There it was, a monument of opulence in a sea of poverty. No matter how hard his loyalists tried to defend the president and his pampered animals, the people saw through the lies and the games. The more ludicrous the explanations in his defence became, the more insulted the public felt. Yes, they saw Thulas Nxesi, Nathi Nhleko, Vijay Ramlakan, Riah Phiyega et al doing the insulting, but they knew the man making faces at them was the president. Inside the ANC, leaders and rank and file members were tired of their organisation being diverted from real issues and being turned into an Nkandla party.
Post-Waterkloof, there had been hope that Zuma would conduct his affair with the notorious Gupta family more discreetly. But just as with his previous illicit liaisons with questionable businessmen, Zuma’s paramours couldn’t help flaunting their conquest. Faced with a choice between party and paramours, and between country and paramours, he chose the lovers. The trysts were too good to let reason get in the way.
But the game is almost over now. The referee is constantly glancing at his watch with the whistle embedded between his lips. When the whistle blows, Zuma may not know the game has ended as he will probably not be physically removed from office as the ANC tries to avoid rupture ahead of the 2019 elections.
Rather, the commander in chief will simply be rendered powerless and unable to command. What’s worse for him is that this power will also not necessarily shift to his party, but will be shared among other players in society.
It has already started happening – last year’s collapse of the state of the nation address and the government’s surrendering before an army were the most symbolic indications of this.
If you had not made a New Years’ resolution in January, it is not too late to make one now: “I will not switch off my phone at night.”
With a grin, a guffaw and a giggle, the president makes flippant life-and-death decisions on behalf of the populace
IN ON THE JOKE