Allister Sparks

What Zuma should say during State of the Nation address

2015-02-11 09:09
(File: Sumaya Hisham, Pool, AP)

(File: Sumaya Hisham, Pool, AP)

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It's SONA, not State of Nkandla - Maimane

2015-02-11 11:02

Mmusi Maimane fears disrupting the State of the Nation Address will not benefit South Africans.WATCH

Allister Sparks

The ANC is in a quandary over President Jacob Zuma's State of the Nation address in Parliament on Thursday.

Julius Malema and his red brigade of EFF have indicated they may disrupt the speech, and with a court order granting their members interim relief from their suspension for contempt of Parliament last November, they may feel emboldened to do so.

That court order, by Judge Dennis Davis, was not the end of the matter, however.  Judge Davis was dealing with an application for an urgent interdict from the EFF members. The key question of whether Parliament and the president failed to fulfil their constitutional obligation "to ensure accountability, responsiveness and openness" on the Nkandla affair, as the opposition parties contend, has yet to be decided by the Constitutional Court. So the issue is still in something of a legal limbo.

What Judge Davis pointed out in his interim order is that the respondents to the EFF's application, which means the ANC-dominated select committee that recommended the suspensions, had "singularly omitted to take account of the democratic imperatives that I have been at pains to emphasise”.

By which he meant the EFF members had been elected to represent the interests of those citizens who had voted for them. Their suspension limited their ability to do so. Therefore, a "high threshold" was required to justify the restriction of those voters'  democratic rights to have their  interests voiced in the national legislature.

This is what is worrying the ANC, particularly Zuma and Speaker Baleka Mbeta, about what may happen during the State of the Nation address.

ANC leaders have been appealing to Malema not to disrupt Parliament, and with the Constitutional Court case still to be heard, he may indeed hesitate. But knowing that the EFF's main purpose in life is to embarrass the ANC, that they have little respect for the niceties of Parliamentary procedure or judicial pronouncements, the ANC doesn't know what to expect.

So in a spirit of sympathy for their plight, let me offer the ANC some advice. I believe there is only one solution to their dilemma, and that is for President Zuma to get rid of the cursed Nkandla albatross around his neck that is doing such great damage to himself, his legacy, his party and his country.

He can do so in one minute, with a statement along the following lines: "Honourable members, before delivering my analysis of the State of the Nation, I want to make a personal statement. I want to assure this House that I accept the report of the public protector on the excessive expenditure on the security upgrading at my family home at Nkandla, and I want to assure members and the people of this country that my family and I will refund to the Treasury whatever amount an independent assessor calculates we owe to settle this issue.

"In doing so I wish to state that as 'the principal' of the upgrading project, and as the one who required my personal architect to be appointed by the state as the overall director of the project, I accept responsibility for the wasteful over-expenditure. As head of state and the de facto head of this project, I accept responsibility and accountability in terms of our Constitution."

Such a statement would bring a burst of applause and foot-stamping from all sides of the House. It would take the wind out of the EFF sails. The DA and smaller political parties would leap to their feet and join the applause.

The whole nation would feel relieved and overjoyed. Cleansed. A heavy shadow of disillusionment and depression would be lifted. All would be forgiven. Zuma would no longer be the subject of whispered mockery across the country, even among those who still vote loyally for him. Instead he would be hailed as a hero for showing such courage. For it would indeed require courage.

Unfortunately Zuma will almost certainly not do this. The tragedy of our president is that he is a captive of his own cunning. His personality has been moulded by the survivalist skills he acquired during his life in exile, where paranoia was pervasive and the leaders of conflicting factions surrounded themselves with personal loyalists for protection.

For Zuma that became a way of life, which he transposed into the national administration when he became president. His instinct is to build a protective wall of loyalists around himself to ward off all assailants, including those responsible for applying the law. Weak links in that protective circle must constantly be replaced. In such a mind-set the concept of openness and accepting responsibility and accountability does not come easily.

That is what has plagued Zuma throughout his political life, from the arms deal to Nkandla. It is why he has been unable to cast off the curse of those never-ending scandals. Yet "coming clean" is the only way he can ever do so.

This much I have learnt from my many years in journalism, watching case after case where the cover-up, rather than the original crime, has been the destructive factor.

The Watergate scandal in the United States was the classic case. The original incident, when agents of president Richard Nixon's Republican administration broke into a room in Washington's Watergate Hotel to steal a few documents containing information about the Democratic Party's election plans, was a relatively minor crime. It was Nixon's desperate attempts to cover up the petty burglary that destroyed him, forcing him to resign the presidency and sending some members of his administration to jail.

The Washington Post broke the story, a paper for which I later worked for 13 years under the editorship of the renowned Benjamin Bradlee. It was from Bradlee that I learnt the ultimate lesson in damage control.

Not long after exposing the Watergate scandal, the Washington Post landed up in a scandal of its own. One of its star reporters, Janet Cooke, who was young, bright and black, wrote a vivid series of reports for the paper about an 8-year-old drug addict named Jimmy who was regularly shot up by his mother's live-in lover. The poignant story, serialised on page one, held the city in thrall for weeks. It won Cooke the Pulitzer Prize for feature reporting in 1981.

Then, as leaks began appearing, Janet Cooke confessed that she had made it all up. Jimmy had never existed.

For Bradley, the hero of Watergate, this was as grave a crisis as any journalist could experience. What to do about it?

As Bradley was to write in his memoirs: "Thanks to Watergate, I had learned a vitally important lesson: The truth is the best defence, and the whole truth is the very best defence."

He asked the paper's ombudsman, Bill Green, to find out all he could about how the Washington Post's editing system had failed and allowed Janet Cooke's fiction to be published as fact. He wanted the roles of everyone involved in the story, himself including, and be named and their failures exposed in detail.

And he wanted it published prominently. Which it was four days later, all 18 000 words of it.

Today no one remembers the Janet Cooke case, while Watergate has become the epitome of political skulduggery world-wide.


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