Politics is so riddled with patronage that the latest revelations about payments made to President Jacob Zuma have been dismissed, say analysts.
On Friday the Mail & Guardian revealed the details of an auditor’s report, which formed part of the National Prosecuting Authority’s 2006 investigation into Zuma’s financial affairs, and showed how benefactors had funded the president’s lifestyle by more than R7-million.
The story was widely read over the weekend but reaction to it was muted. The presidency declined to comment on the matter at the weekend, as did the ANC.
"We can't comment on a private matter as an organisation. It has nothing to do with anybody," said spokesperson Keith Khoza said. "We cannot dignify irresponsible reporting by the M&G; this has got nothing to do with the public office and the office of the president."
There was no reaction from the ANC's tripartite alliance partner, the Congress of South African Trade Unions (Cosatu), either. Spokesperson Patrick Craven told the M&G the federation had "so many issues on our plate at the moment it maybe slipped under the radar".
Craven said this didn’t mean Cosatu didn’t take the matter seriously but that more detail was needed before it could comment.
The Young Communist League (YCL), meanwhile, described the report as "recycled, repackaged by yet irrelevant gossip intended to discredit the president".
The league's deputy national chairperson Mawethu Rune said the story had "Mangaung written all over it", and that the media was using the issue to dissuade delegates from pushing ahead with the Zuma’s re-election at the ANC’s elective conference.
Other political parties were, in the main, silent on the matter.
The Democratic Alliance, which has pursued court action to try to get the corruption case against Zuma reopened, responded with a call for Zuma to step down until the allegations had been dealt with.
The Christian Democratic Party echoed the sentiment, saying the country had dropped 15 positions in the corruption perception index under Zuma’s leadership and that the country was being lead by a president it could not afford.
One reason put forward for the subdued response was that the report only added some detail to what was already known about Zuma’s network of supporters.
Political analyst Adam Habib said reactions had been muted because nobody was surprised by the latest revelations.
"I looked at this and I thought ‘So what?’ We know this already. So you’ve provided more detail but we’ve known for a while that Schabir Shaik was funding him and everybody suspected [that] was just the tip of the iceberg," he said.
"Is the president a kept man? It’s been a widely accepted fact, both inside the alliance and without. People are resigned to that."
Habib said that in any other society such patronage would be seen as a security threat but this wasn’t the case in South Africa, where both politicians and the citizenry had become cynical about their leaders.
“When your president is so vulnerable to a series of dubious individuals then it becomes a security question because policy is vulnerable, decision making in the state is vulnerable, everything becomes vulnerable,” he said.
"Anybody who says this is a personal issue doesn’t understand state power, democracy and accountable government."
A kept president
Yet the argument among politicians now was not how to stop Zuma from being elected at Mangaung, but how to stop him from being overly influenced by the business people who maintain him as a kept president.
The reason why opposition parties had not reacted either was because there was nothing new, he said. "[The DA] are already taking action with regard to the court case. They’ve already got in a motion of no confidence,” he said.
Susan Booysen, politics lecturer at the University of the Witwatersrand, said the public had become “saturated with reports on wheeling and dealin, enrichment and kept politicians”.
“That is probably the scariest thing about it all. It is so pervasive that it does not actually draw that much attention. That is a severe indictment on the state of South African politics,” she said.
Booysen said there was a “deeply entrenched patronage system” in the party, as illustrated by the concept of cadreship.
“The ANC has just accepted that is how it is. They make so many statements about cadreship and how vulnerable they are, each time round there are more promises of action to come, even this time around with resolutions coming into Mangaung, there’s quite a bit [of talk] on organisational integrity and ethics … but there is no interest in implementing it,” she said, only a “smattering of symbolic action”.
Steven Friedman, director of the Centre for the Study of Democracy, however said he was “pleasantly surprised” that the public debate had proceeded as it had. “What we’ve had for some time is a rather peculiar process in which every single ill in the politics of this country is attributed to Jacob Zuma and it’s assumed that all we have to do is get rid of Jacob Zuma and then South Africa will thrive," he said.
"A lot of people buy into this misleading and simplistic view. If anybody thinks for one moment that the fact that Zuma has connections to wealthy people is exclusive to Zuma, then they’ve been living in a bubble for the last 20 years," he said.
"This is absolutely standard in our politics. That doesn’t make it right but an approach that continually brings this back to one individual is ultimately going to bore people and people are ultimately going to switch off,” he said.
"It would be important if it was happening in an environment where the president of the country is acting differently to the rest of the political class,” he said.
But this wasn’t the case. Instead, the patronage revealed by the report affects the entire political class. “It’s a huge problem,” said Friedman.
One reason why politicians had not responded to the report, he said, was because it would be hypocritical.
“People know if they start pointing fingers at colleagues, business connections and financial connections, then they really are inviting a lot of unwelcome attention to themselves,” he said.