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As pan­icked ru­mours swirled this week that Cyril Ramaphosa was to be axed as deputy pres­i­dent, it seemed a mo­ment that ex­em­pli­fied how SA has moved through Lewis Car­roll’s look­ing glass into a cu­ri­ous world of un­fath­omable silli­ness.

SA’S in­creas­ingly flac­cid leader, Ja­cob Zuma, has wanted to get rid of his in­creas­ingly out­spo­ken deputy for months. Now, ANC in­sid­ers are speak­ing darkly of an­other “in­tel­li­gence re­port” that de­tails how Ramaphosa is — wait for it — “a spy for Western cap­i­tal­ist in­ter­ests”. Trea­son charges might fol­low, they warn sternly.

It goes with­out say­ing that it would be a dis­as­trous gam­ble for Zuma to fire Ramaphosa based on a re­port writ­ten by peo­ple who ev­i­dently don’t have the men­tal skills to wield cut­lery with­out do­ing them­selves se­ri­ous harm.

But to fire Ramaphosa now would be to risk pro­vid­ing the bil­lion­aire founder of Shan­duka with ex­actly the sort of tra­jec­tory that cat­a­pulted Zuma him­self into the Union Build­ings. SA loves a vic­tim, so to be fired by Zuma based on a work of fic­tion would be an in­valu­able gift to Ramaphosa’s cam­paign. It would also be deeply ironic.

Zuma loy­al­ists say the pres­i­dent is aware of the dan­gers of giv­ing Ramaphosa enough time to cap­i­talise on be­ing a vic­tim. His so­lu­tion: get rid of him late in Novem­ber, with just weeks to go be­fore the ANC elec­toral con­fer­ence.

But even that would back­fire.

It’s a cu­rios­ity how Zuma, once an arch­strate­gist, is now so badly mis­fir­ing on this score. In part, this is be­cause he has frozen out more rea­son­able ad­vis­ers and sur­rounded him­self with those who in­dulge his con­spir­a­to­rial para­noia.

In­sid­ers say he re­lies now, al­most ex­clu­sively, on the guid­ance of David Mahlobo, a man who was el­e­vated to en­ergy min­is­ter this week from the state se­cu­rity port­fo­lio. Mahlobo is a man of such sound judg­ment that he reg­u­larly vis­ited renowned rhino poacher Guan Jiang Guang at his mas­sage par­lour un­til he was ex­posed. This is not the straw for Zuma to be clutch­ing at; rather, it may be the one that breaks the camel’s back.

But the very fact that Ramaphosa’s ejec­tion is be­ing con­sid­ered now — less than a week af­ter an­other bru­tal cab­i­net reshuf­fle that was de­signed only to shore up po­lit­i­cal fac­tions — il­lus­trates how our pol­i­tics is now al­most ex­clu­sively steered by ve­nal mo­tives.

This isn’t to say that pol­i­tics, even be­fore

Zuma, wasn’t shot through with self-serv­ing machi­na­tions. It has al­ways en­tailed walk­ing a tightrope be­tween per­sonal am­bi­tion and pub­lic ser­vice — an equa­tion kept in bal­ance by the weight of ac­count­abil­ity. In the­ory, these com­pet­ing in­ter­ests should lead to an ac­cept­able out­come. But that bal­ance has been lost in SA, as po­lit­i­cal ac­count­abil­ity has all but van­ished.

There are many rea­sons for this. One is that the pres­i­dent has too much unchecked power over state ap­point­ments. An­other is that MPS are not ac­count­able to the elec­torate, as they would be in a con­stituency sys­tem, but to their party first.

This is why, last week, there was the ab­surd sit­u­a­tion where MPS were lob­by­ing Luthuli House to block par­lia­ment’s in­quiry into state cap­ture, de­spite the bay­ing of so­ci­ety for such a fo­rum.

Com­mend­ably, ANC chief whip Jack­son Mthembu re­jected this re­quest. But it speaks of how, in some quar­ters, there’s a com­plete un­moor­ing from any no­tion of ful­fill­ing the oath MPS swore to the coun­try.

In Car­roll’s clas­sic there’s a mo­ment in which Alice stops and thinks about what hap­pened a while ago. “It oc­curred to her that she ought to have won­dered at this, but at the time it all seemed quite nat­u­ral,” the book re­counts.

In a year’s time, when the coun­try looks back on the dy­ing days of this pres­i­dency, we’ll won­der how it was that we be­came so de­sen­si­tised that we ac­cepted such rou­tine vi­o­la­tions of Zuma’s oath with­out blink­ing.

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