President Zuma Doesn't See Us: Critical Lessons from Nkandla

2014-08-28 23:24

To an ordinary citizen, it may seem that President Jacob Zuma lives in his own world (at a cost to that citizen upwards of R200 million) and does not see or respect the people he purports to serve, the Parliament to which he's (meant to be) accountable to, nor the state agencies which he is constitutionally obliged to listen to. All these groups seem to fall to the wayside as he increasingly surrounds himself with cheerleaders and puppets who are willing to defend him to the death.

This view stems from the Presidents' Response to the National Assembly addressing investigations surrounding the Nkandla saga. Before I read the Response last Saturday morning, I was listening to the throbbing in my head as my headache (read: hangover) intensified. After reading the feeble and weak response from the President I felt even sicker as I came to the sudden realization that our President really doesn't care how the National Assembly or nation at large feels about this issue of Nkandla. There seems to be no sense of worry or urgency in his response, much less a heartfelt desire to see the matter closed. Let me vent out a bit.

Firstly, to think that the Republic had to wait so long for such a flimsy response from its Head of State is insulting, to say the least. President Zuma played delay tactics and didn't even try to hide the fact that he was delaying and we graciously allowed him. In the process of delaying, he cast a shadow of doubt over the credibility of institutions like the SIU which was used as a pawn in this delaying game. What was supposed to take 14 days took months as the country waited patiently for its President to account.

And we waited and waited and waited. For this.

But perhaps you see nothing wrong with the Response by the President and are inspired by the excellence and efficiency with which the President comprehensively dealt with this situation (like Stone Sizani). Allow me to burst your bubble a little.

What the nation expected from the Response was the President to, firstly, establish his innocence by comprehensively responding to all reports on Nkandla and, secondly, tell the nation how he planned to act to remedy the situation. This is a reasonable expectation because Nkandla has now become a thorn to everyone in the country, including Zuma. The Response is inadequate precisely because it doesn't even attempt to “respond” to most of the issues raised by the three reports on Nkandla (as received from the Public Protector , the Joint Standing Committee on Intelligence and the Special Investigations Unit) and does little to placate the country and chart a decisive way forward on this issue.

Instead, he used less than one page of the 19-page Response to speak on how he, as head of state and government, will act and instead delegated all responsibility to the Ministers of Police (shame, and he's new) and Public Works and Cabinet. President Zuma did such an impeccable job in summarizing the reports on Nkandla and so little effort in informing us how he plans to act, that the Response may very well just be called the Summary.

The way I see it, President Zuma had this opportunity to put the Nkandla matter to bed and vindicate himself in the eyes of the nation, but he failed dismally. A sober leader of a country would have capitalised on this opportunity to either prove beyond a reasonable doubt that he/she is innocent or, if need be, apologize to his/her people and make amends. President Zuma did neither.

But this whole exercise will be a waste if we don't take critical lessons from it. I'm prepared to venture my belief that it is the weakness of our legislators, our technocrats in government, members of the Cabinet and our society as a whole that has led to this quagmire and many other corruption sagas.

I agree with the President when he says that “What appears apparent is that whilst a legislative framework exists, it was either deficient in certain aspects, wholly ignored or miss-applied”. This indeed alludes to the weakness of our Parliament, whose ineptitude at holding the Executive accountable weakens our democracy. While the attempts of EFF Members of Parliament in holding the Head of State accountable are noble, their “un-parliamentary” behaviour does little to fix the situation. Rendering Parliament ungovernable is not the way to go; it makes it even weaker than it is right now.

Let us also not forget our civil service. I'd like to believe that there are a plethora of avenues for blowing and exposing government corruption and our civil servants in government have no right to keep quiet when fraud, in any form, is being committed. What kills our country is the silence of civil servants, who read newspapers and call in on radio stations and say “our country is going down” while they sit and watch corruption happen in their offices everyday.

We must also learn to respect and value our Chapter Nine institutions. The Presidency, government and Luthuli House really must stop denigrating the office of the Public Protector. It does nothing to strengthen our democracy. By the same token, the Public Protector must desist from engaging, and perpetually responding to, her critics in media. (And can she find ways of dealing with the constant leaks from her office).

We all must learn something from this Nkandla issue, but the No 1 student in this school remains President Zuma. He must find ways of dealing with perceptions about his office and must cease thinking that he does not have to account for things which happen during his Presidency. Otherwise for now, it seems that we are led by a class-A thug who is prepared to be a constant embarrassment to the country and the ANC of Luthuli, Tambo and Mandela so loved by millions. It really seems we are led by a leader who doesn't see his people.

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