Fate­ful tra­jec­to­ries of Zuma and his neme­sis

Weekend Argus (Saturday Edition) - - FRONT PAGE -

POL­I­TICS is a fickle pro­fes­sion. The hum­ble can be ex­alted in a trice and, just as quickly, find them­selves face down in the dirt again.

Just ask that pre­vi­ously ob­scure ANC back­bencher Des van Rooyen. At the tail end of one week in De­cem­ber he was cat­a­pulted by Pres­i­dent Zuma – al­legedly at the be­hest of JZ’s wheel­ing-and-deal­ing Gupta cronies – into the im­por­tant job of fi­nance min­is­ter.

By the be­gin­ning of the next week he had been fired, earn­ing for­ever the mock­ing so­bri­quet “Week­end Spe­cial” van Rooyen. It would have been scant con­so­la­tion, fol­low­ing upon this hu­mil­i­a­tion, then to be given the tri­fling port­fo­lio of co-op­er­a­tive gov­er­nance as paci­fier.

For while envy and dis­like are the ev­ery­day givens that ev­ery politi­cian has to deal with, ridicule is much trick­ier to ne­go­ti­ate. Snig­gers can be fa­tal to the rep­u­ta­tional grav­i­tas that ev­ery politi­cian cov­ets.

Sim­i­larly, last week de­liv­ered a stark study in con­trasts in the for­tunes of South Africa’s first citizen and an un­ex­pect­edly met­tle­some pro­tec­tor of the rights of the or­di­nary citizen.

At the ex­act mo­ment that Zuma, pos­si­bly now the most widely de­spised per­son in the coun­try, hit a new low, his neme­sis, Pub­lic Pro­tec­tor Thuli Madon­sela, reached per­haps the pin­na­cle of pub­lic pop­u­lar­ity.

Last Fri­day was Madon­sela’s fi­nal day of her term in of­fice. In the days prior, the me­dia had been filled with glow­ing tributes to a woman whose dig­nity and de­ter­mi­na­tion had made her a bea­con of hope in a coun­try that is in­creas­ingly di­vided, de­pressed and an­gry.

It is easy, in the ex­cess of warm, emo­tional fuzzi­ness that has marked her de­par­ture, to forget that her ini­tial ap­point­ment had not been aus­pi­cious.

The of­fice of Pro­tec­tor was set up in 1996 along with other mech­a­nisms un­der Chap­ter Nine of the con­sti­tu­tion, to guard against the in­cli­na­tion of the gov­ern­ment – any gov­ern­ment – to abuse its pow­ers and sub­vert democ­racy.

Her of­fice was given carte blanche to in­ves­ti­gate any as­pect of state af­fairs or ad­min­is­tra­tion claimed to be im­proper, or “to re­sult in any im­pro­pri­ety or prej­u­dice”. Madon­sela’s pre­de­ces­sors, how­ever, had been unin­spir­ing ANC ap­pointees, rub­ber-stamped not be­cause they would vig­or­ously ex­er­cise their pow­ers but be­cause they were con­sid­ered safe hands that would re­li­ably pri­ori­tise party in­ter­ests.

The of­fice was es­sen­tially a glo­ri­fied ver­sion of a cor­po­rate com­plaints de­part­ment. And as with ev­ery com­pany om­bud, all in­volved un­der­stood the un­writ­ten rules: in­ves­ti­gate, but not too deeply; rec­tify, but not too rad­i­cally. Above all, blame is al­ways de­flected down the man­age­rial hi­er­ar­chy, never up­wards.

Con­se­quently, pub­lic ex­pec­ta­tions were mod­est. There was so lit­tle in­ter­est that in 2009 – the year that Madon­sela was ap­pointed and co­in­ci­den­tally the same year that Zuma pulled off the au­da­cious act of regi­cide that shoe­horned him into the pres­i­dency – Par­lia­ment ini­tially did not get suf­fi­cient in­ter­est for the Pro­tec­tor job and had to re-ad­ver­tise to drum up an ad­e­quate slate of can­di­dates.

Madon­sela emerged un­spec­tac­u­larly from a par­lia­men­tary process that was as lack­lus­tre and pas­sion­less as the most re­cent one, the choice of her suc­ces­sor, ad­vo­cate Bu­sisiwe Mkhwe­bane, was spir­ited and ro­bustly con­tested.

At the time, me­dia com­men­tary was muted. Madon­sela was, af­ter all, a woman, which made for as­sump­tions that were pa­tro­n­is­ingly pa­tri­ar­chal but, as time would prove, to­tally er­ro­neous.

If Madon­sela’s rep­u­ta­tion was, in 2009, at its nadir, that of Zuma was at its zenith. It would be down­hill from that mo­ment of his as­cent to power, ap­plauded by the same ANC lead­er­ship elite of whom many now ex­co­ri­ate him and call for his sack­ing.

This cross­ing of tra­jec­to­ries is al­most Shake­spearean. The fates of two of the most im­por­tant fig­ures in our pol­i­tics were soon in­ex­tri­ca­bly in­ter­twined, with the defin­ing mo­ment be­ing her re­port into waste­ful state ex­pen­di­ture upon Zuma’s pri­vate home at Nkandla.

Zuma’s mis­cal­cu­la­tion over Nkandla was to as­sume, as had most of the po­lit­i­cal an­a­lysts be­fore him, that this wisp of a woman would be, if not bid­dable, at least eas­ily brow­beaten.

Madon­sela was hounded, abused and threat­ened but re­mained res­o­lute.

She was vin­di­cated when the high­est court in the land not only en­dorsed the way she had ex­er­cised her pow­ers but also re­buked Zuma for vi­o­lat­ing the con­sti­tu­tion and be­tray­ing his oath of of­fice.

It is then en­tirely fit­ting that the fi­nal scene of their star-crossed re­la­tion­ship was last week again in a court of law, with the pres­i­dent in­ter­dict­ing Madon­sela’s re­port into claims of “state cap­ture” by his con­tro­ver­sial cronies. For the mo­ment, Zuma stands tri­umphant and Madon­sela, per­force, ex­its stage left with her term of of­fice com­pleted.

But as with any clas­si­cal tragedy, it is the hubris of the pro­tag­o­nist that ul­ti­mately causes his de­struc­tion. The other ac­tors, even the most im­por­tant of them, are only trig­gers to that self­im­mo­la­tion.

It may be too much to hope that Zuma’s po­lit­i­cal exit, too, is im­mi­nent. But while South Africa groans un­der his ru­inous fury, as he lashes out against en­e­mies real and imag­ined, for the mo­ment hope is all we have.

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from South Africa

© PressReader. All rights reserved.