Watergate set the trend. Since then we have locally had Muldergate, Travelgate, Guptagate and now Nkandlagate. There are others, quickly forgotten as new political outrages displace the old more swiftly than one can keep track.
The gate suffix is now so ubiquitous through journalistic overuse as to be meaningless. Especially given what separates the first gate scandal from the most recent.
Watergate, however disastrously misbegotten it turned out to be, was strategically calculated. It was a deliberate act of illegality with the risky intention of sabotaging a Democratic Party machine that Richard M Nixon feared was going to deprive him of a second term as president of the United States.
Nkandlagate, in comparison, is simply just another example of presidential greed and arrogance. It was a tawdry act of self-indulgence that Jacob G Zuma and his sycophantic cronies believed would have zero political consequences.
After all, this is a president who has defied political gravity for a long time. This is a man who won an almost two-thirds majority in his first tilt at the polls, despite a rape trial, followed by charges of racketeering, fraud and corruption that were foiled only by all kinds of behind-the-scenes shenanigans in the prosecution authority and intelligence services.
This is a man who despite a first term that could at best be described as lacklustre, went on to win a second term with a respectable 62% of the vote. How Nixon would have admired such a triumph of the brazen over the righteous.
So it is then not surprising that Zuma shrugs off the Nkandla controversy and the public protector’s finding that taxpayer money was misspent on private luxuries. During the election campaign earlier this year, he dismissed Nkandla as being the concern only of ‘bright people’, not ordinary voters. Apparently Number One is oblivious to the damning imputation of his words against the intelligence of his supporters.
Last week there was yet another tortuous and irrational justification. The Nkandla expenditure was okay, he explained, because there was a precedent to such executive excess: President PW Botha had commissioned the George airport not because it was economically necessary but for the convenience of access to his Wilderness home.
It’s clear that Zuma has never bothered to read the public protector’s exhaustive 447-page report. If he had, he would have been less inclined to raise the issue of how his predecessors, especially those from the apartheid years, behaved when it came to security matters. As it happens, public protector Thuli Madonsela’s report examines the issue in detail and the statistics are telling.
Zuma spent R246-million of taxpayer money ostensibly securing his private home. Securing PW Botha’s Wilderness home against would-be assassins cost the taxpayer a mere R173 000 in today’s currency. So it cost about 1 420 times more to ensure the safety of the African National Congress’s supposedly beloved man of the masses, than it took to protect one of the most loathed figures of the minority apartheid regime.
Of course, Zuma is not one to be easily shamed and, until now, it seemed that he could get away with pretty much whatever he liked. He might, however, at last be running out of road.
While Nkandlagate did not deter a critical mass of voters in 2014, it might do so in the 2016 local government elections. And then there is another stone in his shoe, the matter of e-tolls.
The e-tolls controversy has defied rationality. Never mind that it is blindingly obvious to most of the country, aside from Johannesburg and Pretoria motorists, that a user-pays system is the fairest way to fund new motorways, the antipathy to e-tolls is not abating. Non-payment is costing the toll operator and, ultimately the government, hundreds of millions.
Together, these two issues could conceivably bring Zuma down. Contrary to Zuma’s complacent assessment, there might well be enough “bright people” in Gauteng, where the ANC majority in the national election was a wafer thin 52%, for the governing party to lose control of a couple of metros, including that of the nation’s capital, Pretoria.
Faced with such losses, the ANC leadership echelon would get rid of Zuma. So there is one similarity between Watergate and Nkandlagate – like his “gate” predecessor Nixon, Zuma too might not see out his second term.
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