Nkandla Watch

On Nkandla, Zuma’s Nixon-moment can’t be far

Zuma’s “Nixon-moment” coming?

Room to hide from the personal implications for President Jacob Zuma of what happened with the upgrades at his Nkandla abodes is shrinking all the time.

Having ignored the well-considered advice that has just come to light, from the seasoned strategist and wily old fox Mac Maharaj, President Zuma’s Nixon-moment, when facing the music can no longer be avoided, cannot be far off now.

Insisting on covering up his personal involvement and stonewalling the Public Protector’s recommendation that he should repay some of the money spent at Nkandla, is increasingly being shown up as a huge mistake.

In June this year we argued in an article that Mr Zuma and his advisers missed an opportunity “to get rid of the Nkandla issue and put some distance between that and the ANC”.

We were referring to Philani Mavundla, the wealthy KwaZulu-Natal businessman and friend of Mr Zuma, who offered to collect the money that the Public Protector had recommended the president should pay towards the upgrades at Nkandla. We argued that it would have left only the figure due for non-security related work to be determined.

It turns out that it was exactly the route that Mr Maharaj was advising the president to take. In fact, from the way we got to know Mr Maharaj since the days of the CODESA negotiations of 1994, we will not be surprised if it turns out he was the one who initiated the Mavundla initiative.

But now the horse has probably bolted and that opportunity is no longer available. As was the case with ex-US president Richard Nixon, the attempted cover-up has become the bigger sin.

Wider guilt

What has, however, especially after the ‘on-site visit’ by the special parliamentary ad hoc committee to Nkandla, now been established beyond doubt with the consensus of all concerned, is that there has been wasteful expenditure at Nkandla by all and sundry involved.

Even the ANC chairperson of the ad hoc committee, Cedric Frolick, said after the visit to Nkandla that shoddy workmanship, money wastage and grossly inflated construction costs characterise the spending debacle at the president’s home.

Much more is involved and at stake than just the “undue benefit” from the project for President Zuma and his family.

Against this background we want to repeat an assessment we made in September last year in an opinion piece on this site, in which we wrote: “… it would also be a miscarriage of justice to try and turn Mr Zuma into the only ‘accused’ and to paint a picture of lesser political figures, officials and contractors involved in the whole affair as mere ‘scapegoats’. Everyone that can and should have their ‘day in court’ must be heading that way.”

In this regard it is instructive to have a look at, and learn lessons from, some of the elements and developments involved in the so-called Watergate affair of the early 1970s in the United States.

After the scandal came into the open there initially was also an attempt at scapegoating. In the end 43 people, including members of the Nixon administration, were charged, convicted and incarcerated.

To cure the South African body politic of the malignant tumour Nkandla has become, with upgrades dating back to the time when Mr Zuma was still Deputy President, it should be ensured that all its traces are properly cleaned out.  

Comparison with Watergate

At a closer look it is almost astounding how many parallels there are between what happened around the Watergate scandal and how things are panning out with ‘Nkandla-gate’.

We used a short summary of the Watergate story on Wikipedia and some examples from the Nkandla affair in italics to highlight some of these similarities:

"Watergate was a major political scandal … in the US in the 1970s as a result of the June 17, 1972 break-in at the Democratic National Committee (DNC) headquarters at the Watergate office complex in Washington, D.C., and the Nixon administration’s attempted cover-up of its involvement (Likewise with Nkandla. In the meantime Mr Zuma’s ‘fingerprints’ are emerging all over the Nkandla affair, from documented requests by him for new police accommodation, and consultation with him regarding various upgrades, from the building of a clinic to the moving of the cattle kraal.)

"When the conspiracy was discovered and investigated by the US Congress, the Nixon administration’s resistance to its probes led to a constitutional crisis. (In South Africa we have seen ‘Nkandla-gate’ lead to an attack on the constitutionally protected Article 9 institution, the Public Protector and an assault on the independence and normal functioning of parliament.)

"The term ‘Watergate’ has come to encompass an array of clandestine and often illegal activities undertaken by members of the Nixon administration. Those activities included such ‘dirty tricks’ as bugging the offices of political opponents and people of whom Nixon or his officials were suspicious. (In South Africa we have seen the misuse of institutions like the State Security Agency and ‘false flag’ type of operations, like the creation of a bogus website to discredit the PP and other perceived enemies of government.)

"Nixon and his close aides ordered harassment of activist groups and political figures, using the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), and the Internal Revenue Service (IRS). (In South Africa we have already seen a civil case being instituted against a private architect employed as project manager and introduced to the relevant department by Zuma, former cabinet members redeployed and senior officials subjected to disciplinary action.)

The scandal also resulted in the indictment of 69 people, with trials or pleas resulting in 48 being found guilty and incarcerated, many of whom were Nixon's top administration officials." (In South Africa this element of the process seems about to start, considering the pronouncement by ANC members of the ad hoc committee “… that action should be taken against officials from the public works department and the contractors that worked on this project.”)

Broader implications

As we predicted in June this year: "... in the way ex-President Richard Nixon of the US will forever be linked to the Watergate scandal of the 1970s, President Jacob Zuma is doomed to have his legacy forever clouded by Nkandla."

It has, however, also caused much broader concerns. In particular, it has exposed a weakness in the country’s present constitutional construct and the danger of the blurring of dividing lines between government as institution and the governing party as a political entity.

Under the US constitution, what in South Africa has become ‘cadre deployment’ by the ruling party of the day, is to some extent a formal part of the constitutional and political construct of that country. In the US the terms in office of presidential appointees end with that of the president.

Under the present South African construct ‘cadre deployees’ become permanent career civil servants. The danger associated with this state of affairs is clearly illustrated by what has happened at Nkandla. It needs to be urgently addressed in the wake of the whole affair.  

by Piet Coetzer

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