The noose tightens for Zuma & his cronies

It’s been another rather unsettling political week both globally and locally. It started with the inauguration of Donald Trump as unlikely president of the United States.

The less said about Trump’s bitter inaugural address, the better. It painted a dystopian picture of America that is far from accurate and it was all rage. The world will have to grow used to the thin-skinned ‘leader of the free world’ who seems to make policy one tweet at a time.

Meanwhile, back in South Africa our own President Jacob Zuma was wasting no time in trying to insert his own candidate into the ANC succession debate, or non-debate. Who better than Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, someone who surely has his back and is likely to protect him should he face some legal travails after his own presidency?

Zuma has been craftily doing the rounds in KwaZulu-Natal and Limpopo making the case, though curiously also telling all and sundry that succession was not something to be discussed ahead of time. This was after support was voiced for deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa to take over the reins from Zuma. So it seems as if the rules of silence over succession applies to everyone but Zuma. But we are quite used to that.

Like Trump, Zuma casually and cunningly invoked God in making the compelling case for his and the ANC’s leadership. Spiritual hockey seems to have legs these days. And so the succession battle will rage on and will doubtless be a mixture of spin and truth. It’s a long road to the December ANC elective conference and we had best grow used to information and disinformation.

Speaking of which, some strangely sinister news made headlines this week when Sihle Bolani sued the ANC for unpaid fees arising out of a contract to run its so-called ‘black ops’ media campaign during the recent local government elections. This involved spreading the ANC message via social and other conventional sources of media. But it also seemed to include creating fake news sites and employing fake callers to radio stations to boost the ANC’s message.

The ANC has been caught on the back foot and first denied the contract existed and then had to backtrack. How desperate has the ANC become that it needed to boost its support in the 2016 local government elections via fake news? It tells us a great deal too about its media strategy; one based on what is unreal? The story had even greater relevance in a week in which it has been alleged that some major news outlets were the victims of fake news sites and Twitter accounts after the Absa/Bankorp matter re-surfaced.

While the Guptas were fighting their proxy battle with Finance Minister Pravin Gordhan, the Absa matter surfaced as grist to the mill of the Guptas and others within the Zuma circle who railed against the privilege of ‘white monopoly capital’ and how that in fact symbolised all that was wrong with South Africa’s economy. Trevor Manuel, Maria Ramos and others seem to be prime targets.

Conveniently, there is the Public Protector’s ‘state of capture’ report that Zuma, the Guptas and others want us to forget about. What better way to do that than to provide the distraction of ‘white monopoly capital’ and create equivalence between the challenges of state capture and apartheid-era corruption?

But, what is the Absa issue actually? From 1985 to 1992 the South African Reserve Bank provided assistance to Bankorp and, for the period 1992 to 1995, to its new owner Absa. This so-called ‘lifeboat’ has been the subject of investigation and controversy regarding apartheid-era looting. The Davis Panel was appointed by then Reserve Bank governor Tito Mboweni to investigate the matter. Then Judge Davis found that Absa’s shareholders did not derive any undue benefit from the Reserve Bank’s intervention and as such no claim of restitution could be pursued against Absa.

The Public Protector’s leaked draft report into the matter recommends that Absa pay compensation to the tune of R2.25 billion. This assumes that the recommendations remain unchanged in Busisiwe Mkhwebane’s final report. Somewhere, somehow, the draft report was leaked to the media, causing Mkhwebane to lay a charge of fraud regarding the leak.

In the meantime, allegations were rife this past weekend that the Guptas, or those associated with them, have set up fake news sites and employed Twitter trolls to cast doubt on the integrity of certain journalists and to flood social media with ‘white monopoly capital’ tweets and posts. The journalists are attacked for being in cahoots with ‘white monopoly capital’ like the Ruperts. The trolls attack Gordhan (conveniently) for ‘having shares in Standard Bank’, for instance. A weak argument riddled with contradiction if one only has a cursory look at the GEPF website to see how all government pension fund money is invested. But why let the facts get in the way of a good conspiracy?

Add to this Zuma’s own ramblings in KwaZulu-Natal before the party faithful where he lamented the fact that he was compelled to replace ‘the best finance minister’ we never had with Gordhan and a pattern starts emerging. Further, the Guptas’ and Oakbay’s litigation against National Treasury regarding the closing of their bank accounts and Zuma’s own strategic delay in signing the new Fica Amendment Bill into law (this Bill would create more stringent requirements for scrutinising the bank accounts of prominent individuals and would trace funds more aggressively. Many see it as a key anti-money-laundering tool. The president has raised concerns about the ‘constitutionality’ of the Bill, which is somewhat unusual given Zuma’s own casual regard for constitutional matters in relation to his own conduct over the years) creates a clearer picture.

It is one where the president and his cronies appear to undermine Gordhan and National Treasury because they are feeling the squeeze as the law and media start to form a tightening noose around their necks. Pressure is also building around the inquiry into the ‘state of capture’ report released last year. Who are the individuals who have or seek to capture the state and where does this web of deceit lead us? We don’t need to guess.

So given all of this, what better way to distract us all than by leaks of the Absa report, talk of ‘white monopoly capital’, fake news and Twitter trolls? Of course, the issue of apartheid era corruption is valid and a discussion should be held about accountability and also how such corruption has shaped our precarious present. Quite how we open the Pandora’s box is a different matter.

Would that mean also re-opening the TRC? Economic crimes under apartheid cannot be delinked from the atrocities during the apartheid years and the unanswered questions that still remain surely? That requires a degree of thoughtfulness that is wholly missing from our current political debate. Who would be able to lead us in such a conversation without it being mired in the opportunistic politics of the day? Certainly not the president or indeed the ANC so caught up in its own dysfunction and division. There are those therefore who seek to use the past to distract us from our present travails and the corruption that is so prevalent. It behoves us to be vigilant therefore and to hear carefully when Zuma talks to the faithful about us all ‘being ready’ for when the president acts next. Presumably he is talking about a Cabinet reshuffle?

There are many actors in this tragi-farce, from Mzwanele Manyi to possibly the new Public Protector. Yesterday EFF leader Julius Malema launched a scathing attack on Mkwebane. Malema often sounds like the mad prophet of biblical times but there is method in his madness. We have all watched as Mkhwebane seems to have taken some curious stances in her short tenure and appears executive-minded. She was ambivalent during the ‘state capture’ court application, has fired an advisor without due process being followed and at then the leaking of the Absa report which substantially muddied the political waters. Not a good start, and while civil society has given her the benefit of the doubt, that much is over now. We seem to be dealing with a Public Protector who at the very least is hapless, and at the very worst could be inserting herself into political battles. The latter will be dangerous for Mkhwebane.

So, confusing as much of this sometimes is, we must not lose sight of the endgame. We see Zuma in all his weakness, as the emperor with no clothes, as the leader on his way out, desperate to pave the way for a chosen successor and avoid the 783 charges of fraud and corruption which may come his way. Let us therefore not pretend that these distractions are anything more than the last kicks of a dying horse and his cronies’ desperate attempt to take over National Treasury and secure stakes in our economy.

  *This article was published in EyeWitness News. To view the article on their website click here. 

Judith February is a consultant on governance matters and affiliated to the University of Cape Town’s Graduate School of Development Policy and Practice.  Prior to that she was Executive Director of the HSRC’s Democracy and Governance Unit and also Head of the Idasa’s South African Governance programme.  Judith has worked extensively on issues of good governance, transparency and accountability within the South African context.  She is a regular commentator in the media on politics in SA and in 2009 served on an ad hoc panel to evaluate the effectiveness of South Africa’s Parliament. She is a regular columnist for Media24 and also an occasional columnist for the Daily Maverick and other publications.  She is the co-editor of “Testing democracy: which way is South Africa going?” March 2010, Idasa. She was awarded a summer fellowship in 2009 at the Freeman Spogli Institute for Democracy Development and the rule of law at Stanford University, California and in 2012 was awarded a Spring Reagan-Fascell Fellowship at the National Endowment for Democracy in Washington DC.

To see Judith February's extensive list of publications on our website please click here.

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