What keeps the ANC election planning machine up at night? It's not poverty, unemployment or any other burning socioeconomic issues. And it's definitely not the Democratic Alliance.
There are election issues, and then there is public protector Thuli Madonsela's Nkandla report.
With her reputation of no favour and a dedication to clean governance, and based on a previous leak of parts of the provisional report, the ruling party is already braced for bad news come Wednesday. Madonsela will release the long-awaited findings of her investigation into allegations of public money being misspent on security upgrades to President Jacob Zuma's private residence in Nkandla, KwaZulu-Natal to the tune of about R206-million.
The Mail & Guardian reported on leaks from a provisional version of the report that already put the ruling party's backs up, with indications that the finding may be pretty harsh for Zuma. He may be expected to pay back some of the money, and be in serious trouble if he was found to have misled Parliament about the funding of his residence.
It is reportedly the number one concern for disillusioned ANC voters. But unlike jobs, service delivery protests, and political mudslinging, this is one voting turn-off that is difficult to spin and coax into a more acceptable form, try as they might.
And try they did for a while, ahead of the party's manifesto launch in Nelspruit earlier this year, with members of the national executive committee spending some time at their meeting figuring out how to make the Nkandla issue sound a little less problematic to voters.
There was the security cluster's attempts too, with their comedic re-imaginings of fire pools and the like, after a damaging to-and-fro over the report's release, including an attempted court injunction.
An awful lot of time and energy has been spent on the matter. Because if there is one thing the ANC has been clear on, it's that this is an election issue, and that the timing has been designed to make the ruling party look bad less than two months ahead of a national general election where the ANC is already looking less than impressive.
And when there's an election threat aimed its way, expect the party to fight dirty – even if the object of its wrath happens to be a chapter nine institution that should be above such political pressure.
The party began directing subtle threats Madonsela's way around the time of January's manifesto launch, with ANC secretary general Gwede Mantashe warning that her report should reflect the security cluster's own conclusion. This was after repeated warnings from the ruling party and government that the report should be released immediately given its proximity to the elections. You need to forgive the powers that be for a little double dealing here, as it was their court injunction that initially delayed the report, and Madonsela later dryly pointed out that one of the implicated parties asked for more time to respond.
With a date finally being set down last week, the pressure on Madonsela has ratcheted up a notch with a seemingly co-ordinated campaign that some fear is an attempt to delegitimise her office:
- Other ANC deployees who have been subjected to Madonsela's investigations have become vocal in the build-up to the report's release on Wednesday. This included SABC acting chief operating officer Hlaudi Motsoeneng, who benefited from the service of a few fringe church leaders. The leaders on Thursday released a spate of statements decrying Madonsela's work particularly close to the elections, and even went so far as to "cast demons" out of her office.
- Shortly afterwards, Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries Minister Tina Joemat-Pettersson served court papers on Madonsela on Friday, challenging her report on the tender to manage the state's fishery vessels, which was released on December 4. Joemat-Pettersson held a press conference on the matter just three days before the report's release. Madonsela acknowledged Joemat-Pettersson's right to ask for a review, but told Business Day it would be a waste of state legal resources "as there is no likelihood that a judge would find my decision irrational on the current facts and regulatory framework". More sound and fury then, ahead of the report release.
- On Sunday, City Press reported that the ANC is expected to tell its members to ignore the public protector's Nkandla report if its findings are adverse and accused Madonsela of producing a report designed to influence the outcome of the elections.
- Mantashe over the weekend added that the party would treat the findings as a "political report", effectively undermining the legitimacy of the public protector's office, and reducing her to an opposition figure.
- On Monday, Public Service and Administration Minister Lindiwe Sisulu cast doubt on the legitimacy of the report, saying in an interview with the Star she was doubtful that the probe into Nkandla was investigated properly before its release to the public on Wednesday.
- On Monday, former South African Communist Party (SACP) provincial leader Phatse Justice Piitso penned an opinion piece criticising Madonsela's timing and stating that she was not above the law. The SACP forms part of the tripartite alliance, which includes the ANC and Cosatu.
With the report still one day away, mudslinging may well continue.
Planning Minister Trevor Manuel's remarks on Sunday proved to be prescient. The stalwart figure decided to step out of politics and has become refreshingly frank as his patience runs short with the weaker elements of the ANC.
In a weekend interview, he warned fellow ANC members and the public to stop attacking constitutional institutions such as the public protector's office.
"You don't have to like the individual, but you have to respect the office," he said. "If you fail to understand that, then you weaken the institutions and democracy will always struggle if its institutions are weakened."