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

CityPress - - News -

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



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