Two days ago, the South African Constitutional Court delivered its verdict on the case of President Jacob Zuma’s private residence, known as Nkandla. The president’s home has been a long standing issue in South African politics, after allegations were made that the president used state funds to construct structures that were disguised as ‘security upgrades’. On this matter, the Public Protector stepped in and it led to excessive public defiance from the president, which later gave birth to trending hashtags such as #PayBackTheMoney. In a landmark verdict delivered on the 31st of March 2016, the Constitutional Court closed the matter. The Court found that Zuma had acted outside of the constitution and in essence should have acknowledged the Public Protector’s recommendation for him to pay for the upgrades at Nkandla.
Although a damaging verdict by the highest court in the land is a milestone for Zuma, it is certainly not the first time that he has been implicated in controversy. Scandal after scandal, Zuma has waved his magic wand, rode the wave and managed to live another day in politics. The president’s guilt or innocence in previous scandals is something that can be debated all day but one thing is for sure; his image and that of the ruling party has been severely strained. In regards to the current image of Zuma and the ANC, some would even suggest that my last statement is a gross understatement. Come to think of it, that is true; their image is actually a mess.
Time and time again, the African National Congress (ANC) has leaped to the president’s defence, often blaming the opposition (mainly the Democratic Alliance and Economic Freedom Fighters for ‘sensationalising’ the issues and acting opportunistically. Personally, I don’t understand why the ANC is surprised that their negativity becomes the opposition’s ammunition. Isn’t that one of the guiding principles in politics? If ruling parties want to silence the opposition then they must keep their house in order, excuse the pun. In addition to this, a house in order will please the population, stimulate economic growth, deal with social ills and basically transform a country into heaven on earth.
The ANC’s body guard tactics with regards to Zuma have now taken a new turn. In response to the ConCourt ruling, ANC leadership met, Zuma dropped a half-baked apology and a media conference was hosted to declare full confidence in the president. I was extremely shocked that ANC chose this position considering that Zuma was found guilty of not doing his main job in office; protecting, promoting and upholding the constitution. As we speak the ANC has dived in with both feet, actively embarking on risking its 100 year old, Nelson Mandela affiliated and saviour of South Africa image on one man. This the one man who seems to attract controversy and then causes even more controversy when he can’t adequately respond to the initial controversy he caused. Yet, he continues to escape consequences which in this case should lead to dismissal from his role as the ANC’s president and in turn leader of the Republic.
If Zuma’s actions did not contribute to hindering the growth of a nation with vast amounts of potential, I would be inclined to call him a political genius. In the past, some have even called him a master tactician and although that may be accurate, we need to ask our shelves who these tactics are benefiting in relation to his current mandate. Personally, I am increasingly moving away from Zuma and taking a closer look at the entity that keeps letting him slide. It is a no-brainer that the leader of any organisation simultaneously serves as its top brand ambassador and we cannot deny the role of brand perception in relation to the success of any organisation. This ‘top dog’ position undoubtedly has its perks but it also means that in the face of a crisis, this position will be highly scrutinised and the nature of the crisis usually determines whether the person in the post will keep his job. In scandalous times, the organisation needs to be seen as taking action in order to regain public confidence, investor faith and restore general integrity. Those are the rules and we see them at play countless times in politics, business, religion, sports and entertainment. Not so long ago, automotive giant VW was found to have manipulated their engines to trick carbon emission tests. One of the first things that happened in the attempt to clean up the company’s deceitful image was the announcement of the CEOs resignation. Whether this decision was personal or due to pressure from the Board, the general consensus was that he could not continue leading VW. The rational is simple, ‘How do we move forward with a leader that has directly caused the mess we are in and how can anyone have faith in his decisions or motives?’.
The verdict on Nkandla is no different. Zuma behaved unconstitutionally and the only acceptable apology should be delivered in the form of a resignation. It’s nothing personal, it’s just that at Zuma’s level, breaking the rules set forth in the nation’s political bible are automatic grounds for dismissal. A verbal apology whether sincere or not does not cut it when the stakes are so high. In truth, resignation the only action that can help a country say ‘apology accepted’. Ironically, I get the indication that some members of the ANC are not as accommodating with regards to the president’s actions but they feel that there is a bigger enemy to tackle. At last night’s Media Briefing, ANC Secretary General Gwede Mantashe basically said Zuma is going nowhere because the opposition wants the ‘ANC to tear itself up’. Really Mr Mantashe, that’s the main reason for defending Zuma?
In many aspects, it seems that the ANC constantly defends Zuma not because they have full confidence in him but merely to snub the opposition that has consistently called for him to step down. The ANC seems to be afraid of calling out the president for his actions because it will fall squarely in line with the messages from the opposition. They speculate that if Zuma is recalled as president of the nation, the opposition will shout ‘You see South Africa, we told you!’, causing a decline in the ANC’s popularity and completely changing the landscape of South African politics. The ANC’s fears towards discipline have made Zuma politically bulletproof and will no doubt encourage him to continue testing the boundaries. One of the key worrying aspects with the ANC’s position is sustainability. The attempts to sweep Zuma’s scandals under the carpet cannot last forever. Sooner or later the ANC will have to deal with severe public outcries or divisions within the Party. As the emotions run high, they will be incredibly difficult to deal with and could spell the beginning of the ruling party’s end of dominance. At this rate, this scenario will play out sooner rather than later hence it is crucial that the ANC acts now.
The Congress needs to think long and hard about the consequences that their current position will bring. They need to start realising that the anti-Zuma sentiments are not only coming from opposition but from the people that put them where they are. Zuma’s name has grown synonymous with negativity and stunts; in homes, schools, businesses, public transport and most importantly on twitter! The president has become a serious liability and the only way for him to wash away his sins is through resignation. These calls might come from the ANC’s biggest critics but they must overlook the short-term implications or embarrassment and focus on their ability to effectively compete in the long term. The president who is approaching the end of his term of office should also do some introspection as there are not many post presidency opportunities for a man who seems to lack integrity or credibility. If Zuma cannot resign on behalf of South Africa or the ANC then he should consider doing it for his legacy. The Jacob Zuma Foundation and other interests are unlikely to lead anywhere successful if he leaves offices with such a dark cloud above him. True leadership is quite the abstract term and it means many things to many people. One thing that seems to be consistent though, is the unique and rare ability to put others before yourself. Time will tell how the president and the ruling party will handle this; but for their sake, I hope seeing the bigger picture triumphs over senseless protection.