Pick: Your friends or your country, Zuma

As per usual, the ANC chose to criticise its critics and simply denied the charges, doing little to nothing to stem the tide. (Gallo)

As per usual, the ANC chose to criticise its critics and simply denied the charges, doing little to nothing to stem the tide. (Gallo)

It started off like the week made in PR hell for the ANC. On Monday, ANC leaders led by party president Jacob Zuma visited the ailing former president Nelson Mandela, and invited television cameras along.

The result was a chorus of howls that a seemingly exhausted Madiba – who had a vacant look on his face among the laughing ANC leadership – was being used for political gain and that the ANC had misrepresented his condition.

As per usual, the ANC chose to criticise its critics and simply denied the charges, doing little to nothing to stem the tide.

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The next day, that issue was wiped nearly entirely from news pages, social media and everyday conversation with the news that Waterkloof Air Force Base was being used as a transport hub for the Gupta brothers' niece's wedding at Sun City.

That – and the fact that the Gupta guests had been received with diplomatic honours and, literally, red-carpet treatment – caused public outrage.

Although the incident was not huge it stood out in a sea of allegations of corruption and governmental favours for friends, drawing heavy and sustained fire without a clear target.

Analysts say that could be because public outrage at the influence the Guptas appear to wield has been simmering for some time, or because of a newfound respect for the military in the wake of soldiers dying in combat in the Central African Republic.

What at first seemed a disaster for the reputation of the ANC, and especially its president, has turned into an unexpected reprieve, just when the party needed it.

Quick response
Regardless of the root cause of public ire, the close links between the Zuma and Gupta families seemed to guarantee the matter would be a scandal for Zuma as well as the ANC and the government.

However, as the dust started to settle towards the end of the week, it became clear that this is one scandal in which a quick response and harsh words will stand the ANC in good stead.

Analysts say some unusually deft handling of communication by the ruling party has saved it embarrassment, just as the country starts to change gear for the 2014 general elections likely to take place in April.

"What you saw was the [tripartite] alliance go on a major drive to crowd out the opposition," said political analyst Sipho Seepe.

"Cosatu, the SACP [South African Communist Party], the ANC all came out strongly with criticism of the government. They managed to deprive the DA [Democratic Alliance] of the moral high ground."

By sharing in the indignation, Seepe said, and joining the chorus demanding answers from the government on the private use of such a sensitive installation, the ruling party and its allies dodged a bullet.

Political liability
Had the ANC taken its usual, non-election-year approach of simply asking questions rather than raining down condemnation, it could have seen public anger turn on it.

Not that the Gupta family using Waterkloof as a private landing strip would necessarily have had any impact on voting, said analyst Aubrey Matshiqi.

"We have 12 months to go before April [2014 general elections], and I suspect if the president and the ANC [are] going to be undermined it will be because of scandals that will occur after this one," he said.

Whether the ANC manages to turn the incident into a clear vote-winner now seems to depend on Zuma's reaction.
According to various sources the president was this week furious at the embarrassment to his government caused by a family who consider themselves his friends. Should he now give the Guptas the cold shoulder, a significant swath of the ANC would be glad, even if it does not influence voters much.

"It certainly puts pressure on the president to begin to say these people could be a political liability," said Seepe.

Phillip de Wet

Phillip de Wet

Phillip de Wet writes about politics, society, economics, and the areas where these collide. He has never been anything other than a journalist, though he has been involved in starting new newspapers, magazines and websites, a suspiciously large percentage of which are no longer in business. PGP fingerprint: CF74 7B0F F037 ACB9 779C 902B 793C 8781 4548 D165 Read more from Phillip de Wet

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