This week President Jacob Zuma went to Parliament to account to the people, as constitutionally a president periodically perforce must. The key issue was the role that his political benefactors, the Gupta clan, allegedly play in ministerial appointments.
What a nation agog over a series of revelations from within African National Congress ranks had hoped for was an unambiguous refutal from Zuma. They were to be disappointed.
Protected by a partisan speaker and facing a naïve opposition – the Economic Freedom Fighters boycotted the sitting, while the Democratic Alliance leader, dutifully trailed by his MPs, was soon ejected from the chamber on the flimsiest of procedural pretexts – the accounting was perfunctory. Only he, insisted Zuma, appointed and fired ministers.
Despite looking drawn and plagued with the occasional return of his falsetto nervous giggle, Zuma was in aggressive form. He savaged suggestions that former finance minister Nhlanhla Nene had enjoyed cross-party support, saying that the DA, in their annual report on ministerial performance, had scored Nene poorly and that the currency was already in decline when he fired Nene.
Zuma, who will face questions on the Gupta issue at this weekend’s ANC national executive meeting, gave subtle notice to his comrades of what to expect. He will not go gently into political oblivion.
The precept of the “reasonable person” is often applied in law. It’s a rough-and-ready assessment of how a hypothetical ordinary citizen, with average abilities, would react to a situation. Despite Zuma’s blustering parliamentary performance, he fails abysmally the reasonable person test, which is unfortunate for a man whose fate is more likely to be determined by legal process, or the threat of it, than by any parliamentary sanction.
For years there has been a growing tide of rumours that the Guptas demand commercial concessions from ministers, subvert government policy to their own ends, and determine ministerial appointments. The rumours have now become specific claims.
Former ANC MP Vytjie Mentor said that the Guptas offered her the job of minister of public enterprises on the proviso that she ceded the national airline’s India route to them. Zuma was allegedly in the next room at the time and when she went to tell him that she had refused the deal, he supposedly said, “I understand, ntombazana (girl) … ”
Zuma’s immediate reaction to Mentor was simply that he had “no recollection” even of who she was. Since then Mentor has produced a detailed list of direct interactions with Zuma and said that she had reported the illegal Gupta offer to her ANC colleagues but that nothing had been done.
In Parliament on Thursday there was not a further word from Zuma on the matter. Would a “reasonable person” avoid entirely addressing allegations by Mentor, a former ANC MP and chair of the ANC parliamentary caucus, that – at their most benign interpretation – identify a presidential problem with memory that is either highly unlikely or medically worrisome?
Then there is Deputy Minister of Finance Mcebisi Jonas, who for weeks had refused to comment on speculation, including in the influential Financial Times, that the Guptas had offered him Nene’s job. This week Jonas released an explosive statement, saying that this was true but that he had rejected the Guptas since this was “a violation of South Africa’s democracy”.
This comes from a man respected by his ANC colleagues. Trade and Industries Minister Rob Davies has defended Jonas as a man of “integrity and honesty”‚ who “acts in the best interests of the country”, and Jonas has had similar support from Tourism Minister Derek Hanekom, from Finance Minister Pravin Gordhan, from ANC Secretary-General Gwede Mantashe, as well as other ANC leaders.
It is political dynamite. If it is not true, Jonas is guilty of grievous defamation and should immediately be both fired by Zuma and interdicted by the Guptas. If it is true, “state capture” is more than a trendy catchphrase, it is an imminent threat to the nation.
If it were true and taking place with the knowledge of the president, the Guptas would face jail time for corruption and Zuma, at the least, would face impeachment. If it were true, and happened without Zuma’s knowledge, one would expect him to be incandescent with rage at their impudent subversion of the law.
So one would then expect the “reasonable person”, never mind a president well-versed in political realities and having sworn an oath to protect the Constitution, to act decisively. The reasonable president would announce that the matter would be investigated at the highest level by a range of law-enforcement agencies, perhaps including a cross-party parliamentary inquiry and a judicial inquiry.
The best that Zuma could come up with was, frankly, pathetic: “If he [Jonas] says he was offered [the ministry] by the Guptas, I think you’ll be well-placed to ask Jonas or the Guptas. Don’t ask me. I have no business with that, absolutely no business.”
SA has reached a critical juncture, perhaps a tipping point. The ANC has the ammunition needed to “recall” Zuma or otherwise edge him out of the top job, but does it have the guts?
At the end of the day, it is ordinary South Africans, both inside and outside of the ANC, who will decide SA’s political future. Would they prove to be “reasonable persons”.
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