Fateful trajectories of Zuma and his nemesis
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.