The opening salvo of the ANC's final push on the Nkandla controversy made for a bizarre media briefing on Tuesday, featuring notable moments such as top party leaders Gwede Mantashe and Jessie Duarte wildly misrepresenting a statement by public protector Thuli Madonsela.
But the totality of the party's plays shows that it is already gearing up to move past Nkandla – and that it intends to emerge, if not entirely victorious and vindicated, then at least as united as it has ever been, and roughly as trusted to govern as it has been in recent years.
It is a strategy remarkable for both its elegant simplicity and its flexibility.
Step one was immediately obvious: denigrate Madonsela in such a way as to allow those who wish to believe that her work on not only Nkandla, but the excesses and questionable decisions by several government ministers, is driven by an anti-ANC agenda.
Madonsela tends to "hype the sentiment" around reports on the upper echelons of government, ANC secretary general Mantashe said, in a phrase used several times. Madonsela's office tends to not release full versions of investigative reports, ANC spokesperson Duarte said, allowing select snippets to hold sway. And then there was the very nearly direct accusation that Madonsela was personally responsible for leaking details of the Nkandla report, which in turn would make her guilty of crimes such as "seeking to undermine the confidence of the public" in her processes (why she would do so was not made clear), and of "deliberate and misleading casting of aspersions" on the subjects of investigations.
That last bit, at least, had motive attached: the ANC is obliquely accusing Madonsela of trying to affect the outcome of general elections in 2014.
The holes in the various arguments are clear, but they culminate into something that would be familiar to ANC supporters. The party, mostly through lesser structures rather than by way of top leaders, has often darkly hinted at counter-revolutionary forces at work in South Africa, shadowy operators who seek to topple the government or mislead voters, be they remnants of apartheid, newer conspiracies of the power-hungry, or alliances of foreign powers. Lumping Madonsela with such trickster figures will find fertile ground in some quarters, and give more people pause for thought.
The second part of the strategy was more subtle and less fraught: give the Madonsela report on Nkandla, which by most indications will be punishingly harsh on Jacob Zuma, equal standing with an earlier report by a team convened by the ministers of state security, police and public works.
That report cleared Zuma of wrongdoing, or so says Parliament's joint standing committee on intelligence, which in mid-November delivered a public summary of the report, which is classified.
"We call for the full report, not only the findings, of the inter-ministerial task team, to be released to the public," Mantashe told the assembled media.
The ANC knows full well that is highly improbable. Ministers tasked with security have long fought the release of any detail on the measures implemented at Nkandla, and have argued it would be illegal for them to do so. It is also probable that the full report will contain information embarrassing to Zuma when considered in conjunction with other mounting evidence on what transpired around Nkandla over the past four years.
But ANC leaders also know that the only public summary of the report is kind to Zuma, and that it deals with exactly the kind of security matters the party would like to see become the centre of extensive discussions.
"The ANC instructs government to make available to the public all the experts who decided and designed all elements of the security features at Nkandla," party leaders said in the written version of Tuesday's statement. "These experts must explain their decisions and designs in the public domain. This must be done to ensure that all and any queries that the public may have with regard to these particular issues are tabled and responded to exhaustively."
Such an exhaustive discussion of the broad strokes of security decisions would, in all likelihood, be rather uncomfortable for the military and police. That is clear from the script, which comes in the form of the committee's report: Nkandla was secured against earthquakes and intruders lurking behind henhouses, intruders who may have rape on their minds. There would be renewed howls of outrage and gales of laughter – but little of it at the expense of Zuma.
Using the internal government report as the basis for discussion on Nkandla is safe; a full third of the terms of reference for that investigation deals with the declaration of Zuma's home as a national key point, the rest deal with requirements, budgets, and supply-chain management. Improper benefit to the president does not feature.