Editorial: Stop protecting Number One

President Jacob Zuma, aka Number One. (AFP)

President Jacob Zuma, aka Number One. (AFP)

"It is difficult not to reach the conclusion that a licence-to-loot situation was created by government," public protector Thuli Madonsela argued in her carefully delivered presentation on the Nkandla report. Madonsela hammered nail after nail into the series of ­fictions produced by President Jacob Zuma's administration about the upgrading of his private residence at Nkandla.

The intention of this fictional narrative has been to establish complete impunity for Number One by delegitimising any institution that finds against the president.

The road to Nkandla meanders through a broken independent prosecutorial authority, a divided judiciary and a haemorrhaging public purse.

It began in 2007 when Zuma, backed by Thabo Mbeki's enemies, emerged victorious at the ANC's Polokwane conference. At Zuma's first press conference as ANC president, it seemed even his closest allies thought him unlikely to impress. ANC treasurer general Mathews Phosa was chief baby-sitter and protector, fielding many questions, especially those related to the economy, while Zuma looked on. What we saw that day would come to define his presidency.

Days later the Scorpions recharged Zuma with corruption, in one of the crime-busting unit's last acts.  Zuma and his "coalition of the wounded" had already pushed for the Scorpions to be disbanded, and Parliament soon moved to do exactly that.

The premiers of the Western Cape and Eastern Cape were purged and Mbeki himself was "recalled" in September 2008, ostensibly "to heal and unite the African National Congress". ANC secretary general Gwede Mantashe described the move as a way of dealing with high court Judge Chris Nicholson's ruling that Mbeki may have been involved in a political conspiracy against Zuma.

With Zuma the ANC's presidential candidate in the 2009 election, moves to protect him went into top gear. "Spy tapes" leaked to Zuma's legal team were used to push the National Prosecuting Authority to drop serious charges against him. Days before the poll, the NPA's acting head – against the advice of two senior counsel and the NPA team itself – dropped the charges.

The tapes detailed conversations in 2007 between then Scorpions boss Leonard McCarthy and other players, including former prosecutions chief Bulelani Ngcuka, then justice minister Brigitte Mabandla and Mbeki himself. The tapes purportedly showed McCarthy's willingness to "manipulate" the timing of the charges against Zuma, based on how this might affect Mbeki's chances in the leadership contest at Polokwane.

Zuma duly became South Africa's fourth democratic president. But the "spy tapes" have not gone away. A high court judge ruled last year that the NPA should hand them over, but the government appealed. The matter is now before the Supreme Court of Appeal, which is expected to make a ruling only later this year – by which time Zuma will probably be serving a second term. Given past experience, the battle to protect Number One is likely to continue.

The obsessive drive to shield him has left a woeful trail of destruction. The intelligence service is in a shambles, the government has resorted to apartheid-era legislation and a "secrecy Bill", which will have the further implication of insulating the country's first citizen.

The judiciary and the judicial selection process have also been compromised. Western Cape Judge President John Hlophe was accused by Pius Langa's Constitutional Court of attempting to influence judges in Zuma's favour. This set senior judges against each other, and the Judicial Service Commission's probe into the matter drags on to this day. This ugly battle has damaged the judiciary's credibility and raised questions about the integrity of some of our top judges.

As Zuma has consolidated his power, and as his family and cronies have benefited from his presidency, he has appointed weak or compromised figures to head key organs of state. It seems no one of independence is allowed to hold key positions in law enforcement agencies; as a result, these institutions are barely able to do their job of pursuing criminals.

Which brings us to Nkandla – a monument to squandered resources and a symbol of everything that is wrong with South Africa under Zuma.

Cabinet ministers and government officials have fallen over themselves to protect Number One at any cost. They have used secrecy laws to block information. They have used the device of ministerial inquiries to contain damage to the presidency. They have vilified the constitutionally enshrined office of the public protector. They have noisily attacked media scarecrows. Government time, energy and resources have been spent trying to save Zuma and his acolytes from public scrutiny.

The ANC took a momentous decision in September 2008 when it "recalled" a president. Today, the ANC could do the same – or at least ensure Zuma is not the party's presidential candidate in May and spare the country impeachment proceedings. Instead of protecting him, the ANC needs to put the country and its people first. It should support and strengthen bodies such as the public protector, rather than undermining them, and should bolster the independence of the judiciary and the criminal justice system.

Given the massive challenges facing South Africa, we cannot afford another five years of a bloated and self-serving administration. The ­protection and enrichment of one man, his family and cronies cannot be a state priority.

It is time to protect all of South Africa's people, not only Number One.

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