Robert Mugabe, Zimbabwe’s neutered president, reminded us last week what a clever and calculating leader we are blessed with. According to Mugabe, it was through President Thabo Mbeki’s “tactical and tactful way”, “gifted intellect” and ability to “never allow a problem to defeat him” that Zimbabwe’s historic power-sharing deal was clinched, prising power from the geriatric’s grip.
It is a surprise then that Mbeki did not employ any of these abundant virtues to salvage both the ANC and the country from the crisis caused by a disastrous “investigation” of Jacob Zuma.
The result of this failure could now be personally catastrophic for Mbeki. Less than a year after being ousted as leader of the ANC, Mbeki faces the very real and mortifying prospect of his career in politics being cut short.
Even if the ANC decides not to sack him before the next election, the fall from grace of the liberation movement’s once most revered son, the product of superior lineage and rearing, is tragic.
Let’s not forget this is the son of Govan Mbeki, the protégé of Oliver Tambo, and the successor of Nelson Mandela. That is some heritage.
Yet if Judge Chris Nicholson’s judgement stands, Mbeki’s legacy does not. Had Mbeki not surrendered to his irrepressible ruthlessness, which directs the manipulation of his minions to destroy his real and imagined enemies, some part of his legacy would still be intact.
Mbeki would now have us believe that he did nothing to influence the National Prosecuting Authority (NPA) improperly and that he had no knowledge or involvement in its disgraceful conduct. The president’s actions and inaction over the past few years prove otherwise. In any case, executive accountability makes nonsense of any claim of innocence.
As Nicholson aptly put it, the NPA and two successive justice ministers, who behaved in ways that defiled the Constitution, could not have been acting “on their own frolic”.
It is apparent from his 115-page judgement last week that Nicholson believes the August 2003 press conference, at which former National director of public prosecutions (NDPP) Bulelani Ngcuka announced there was a prima facie case against Zuma but that he would not prosecute him, was the pivotal event that irreversibly compromised the investigation. Ngcuka’s decision was “bizarre”, said Nicholson, and “was a total negation of the constitutional imperatives imposed on the NDPP”.
In further condemnation of Ngcuka, the judge said that “the prosecution policy and code emphasise very clearly that statements should not be made to the media before a prosecution is instituted”.
Less than a month prior to that fateful press conference, Zuma drew Mbeki’s attention to the NPA’s improper conduct and expressed his concern about continuous media leaks about an alleged investigation against him. He told Mbeki he had tried unsuccessfully to establish whether he was under investigation and told Ngcuka through official legal correspondence that he did not want any special treatment.
Mbeki did nothing — just like he did nothing to stop Ngcuka and the then Minister of Justice, Penuell Maduna, from making the outrageous prima facie announcement. He did nothing afterwards to censure the Ngcuka-Maduna double act, even when Public Protector Lawrence Mushwana established that they had violated Zuma’s rights. We learned this week that Mbeki actually restrained Mushwana from charging Ngcuka and Maduna with contempt, pledging to act against them himself.
Mbeki made a similar written undertaking to Judge Joos Hefer, who criticised the media leaks from the NPA and then did nothing about it. Judge Sisi Khampepe raised the alarm about illegal political intelligence-gathering by the Directorate of Special Operations, the dangers of which were manifest when the Scorpions spawned the scandalous “Special Browse Mole Report”.
The presidency did nothing to rebuke those responsible even though the report was a diplomatic embarrassment for the government. It only became useful when the government had to scratch around for evidence to justify the suspension of Vusi Pikoli.
Mbeki did not own up when Judge Hilary Squires erroneously concluded that Zuma had written to the chairperson of Parliament’s standing committee on public accounts (Scopa) in order to call the dogs off the arms deal. This was a key piece of evidence in the state’s case.
In fact, Mbeki’s determined trend of disregard for judicial outcomes was bucked only once, when he acted promptly to dismiss Zuma days after Squires had convicted someone else. On that day, Mbeki said that while Zuma was not before the court, the judgement contains some categorical outcomes that have a bearing on the deputy president. Three years later, virtually the same thing can be said of the president and the “categorical outcomes” of Nicholson’s judgement.
For years Mbeki tried to deny complicity in Zuma’s troubles. Last week a high court judge exposed him as a wily manipulator, ironically the very character trait Mugabe praised him for three days later — perhaps useful in a mediator, but no virtue in a head of state.
To many, the most astounding part of Nicholson’s judgement was his conclusion that there was “political meddling” in the investigation against Zuma and “baleful political influence” in the decision to prosecute him.
Not even Zuma could have expected Nicholson to deliver such a vindication of his long-running belief that there is a political conspiracy against him.
But the question is how the media got it so horribly wrong, as it did at Polokwane and at the ANC national general council three years ago? Why is the South African media so chronically off the mark when it comes to issues related to Zuma?
It is obviously not just bad journalism that leads editors, reporters and media commentators to jump to false conclusions, conjure up flawed analyses and misread public sentiment.
Nicholson concluded that Ngcuka’s decision not to prosecute Zuma but to announce there was a prima facie case against him “brought justice into disrepute”. A number of our esteemed editors didn’t seem to think so when Ngcuka told them a whole month before his momentous press conference that he would adopt a “Pontius Pilate” approach, and let Zuma hang in the court of public opinion.
They never condemned Ngcuka for making such a deplorable statement. Had they done so, they could have put the brakes on Ngcuka’s brazen — and apparently sanctioned — disregard for our Constitution. Instead they swallowed his propaganda and allowed their publications to be used by the NPA in its political crusade against Zuma.
To borrow and extend Zapiro’s distasteful metaphor, the editors held down the media to let Ngcuka rape it. Over time, the media has become a willing participant in the NPA’s gang-bang.
Now that the debauchery and political manipulation is exposed, the media no longer needs to lie spread-eagled before its pimp. It has the opportunity to restore its soiled image, its credibility and perspective. Or it can become someone else’s bitch.
Ranjeni Munusamy is a commnications consultant. She runs the Friends of Jacob Zuma website