The Nkandla saga is more than four years old but it was only in 2013 that the ANC visibly took control of managing the scandal, making "requests" of government ministers that were quickly acted on.
Since then, the party appears to have developed a master plan for dealing with Nkandla fallout, a plan refined before the release of public protector Thuli Madonsela's report, and only tweaked slightly since.
Officially, the party has condemned "mischievous and downright false assertions", with which it will seek to undermine Madonsela or ignore her findings. But its actions point to a unified, long-term approach that was previously lacking.
Although not without its pitfalls, the plan has already proved to be far more successful than the sometimes farcical and often unco-ordinated attempts by the ministers of public works, police and state security to contain the Nkandla scandal during 2011 and 2012.
Notable features of the plan include asking ministers to:
- Avoid bringing Nkandla before Parliament, where political parties, and the Democratic Alliance in particular, can use parliamentary privilege to get mileage out of the scandal;
- Separate the party and the state concerning the details, but not in the broader picture;
- Embrace and extend the Madonsela report – then supplant it; and
- Prepare scapegoats if it becomes necessary.
If Zuma is to comply with the recommendations made by Madonsela in her Secure in Comfort report, he will have to "report to the National Assembly on his comments and actions" before the week is out.
That seems unlikely to happen.
Madonsela's office has no power to enforce recommendations and a failure by Zuma to report to Parliament can trigger action only from that body itself.
In Parliament, the ANC has in turn argued that Madonsela, not Zuma, should approach the institution.
"She [Madonsela] must table the report in Parliament," said ANC chief whip Stone Sizani on Wednesday, giving no indication that the ANC would hold Zuma to any deadline.
ANC national leaders, too, have avoided saying that the matter should come before Parliament.
"All competent institutions" should examine Nkandla, said ANC secretary general Gwede Mantashe shortly after the Madonsela report was released.
Asked whether that included Parliament, he responded: "When we say all, we mean all."
The ANC's bid to avoid Nkandla being raised in Parliament, despite the party's dominance, appears to be rooted in fears of parliamentary privilege. If Zuma was to appear before the National Assembly, the opposition could, in theory, and with good use of protocol, insult, denigrate and jeer the president, while risking nothing more than expulsion.
Ministers said all the security work at Nkandla was necessary. (Gallo)
Expulsion cannot outlast Parliament's term, which technically has already ended because of the elections in May. MPs cannot be held liable for defamation or legally pursued for what is said in the chamber.
Keeping the ANC itself separate from the workings of the executive government is also an apparent, if not necessarily formal, objective of the master plan.
Threat of revolt
Although hardline supporters of Zuma hold the reins of national party structures, some regions have long threatened revolt; Gauteng in particular has been of concern to top officials, and cases of Zuma being booed have done nothing to reassure them of the loyalty of the region's ordinary members.
The party's approach to placating those who wonder why the ANC is so intent on protecting Zuma has been as simple: separate the president from the party, and the party from the government it controls.
The message, which has been officially disclaimed, is that any undue benefit Zuma may have derived from the Nkandla project, and any action or inaction by Zuma himself, was either in his personal capacity or as president of the country. So, if any action is to be taken against him, it should not be disciplinary action by the party.
Likewise, although current and former Cabinet ministers have been found directly culpable by the Madonsela report and implicated by the government's own Nkandla report, that should be dealt with at a government level, while the ANC is seen to be pushing for institutional reform and not having to deal with individual missteps.
Consequently, one official ANC statement reads: "The manifesto of the ANC commits our government to intensify the fight against corruption in both the public and private sectors through measures to restrict public servants from doing business and holding public officials individually liable for losses arising from corrupt actions."
The position requires a great deal of finesse: it must suggest that the ANC is not in day-to-day charge of the state during an election campaign (in which it is claiming credit for the achievements of the state), while also taking responsibility for the broader workings of the state.
The aim of separating the party and the state is to paint the failure of the ANC to call Zuma to account, or to institute any internal action against its top leaders, as a noble effort to stand aside and let state processes play out.
ANC chief whip Stone Sizani says Thuli Madonsela must present her report to Parliament. (Gallo)
Another part of the overall strategy is to exploit the Madonsela report, rather than trying to discredit it and running the risk of being seen as opposed to the much-admired office of the public protector.
Since November 2013, the government's Nkandla report, compiled at the behest of Public Works Minister Thulas Nxesi, has been set up as a counterweight to the public protector's findings.
Despite the stark differences in the reports, the ANC, in various forums, and the government have both portrayed the Madonsela report as bolstering the government's own.
Corrective action in progress
The ANC has also claimed that the recommendations made by Madonsela have been overtaken, because, on the basis of the government report, corrective action is already being taken.
The next step, not yet implemented, is to have the differences between the reports adjudicated by "competent institutions of state", in the words of the ANC.
But there is an ongoing debate about whether the courts would be a "safe" venue for adjudication if it comes to that.
In what may be preparation for a last-ditch effort, the ANC is also clearly preparing Nkandla scapegoats, individuals who can be dealt with harshly and with public consequences if pre-election public sentiment should demand it.
Police commissioner Riah Phiyega, to date untouched by the Marikana massacre, appears to be first on the list, but it remains unclear (and undecided) whether an apology from her would be considered sufficient.
Other potential victims present varying degrees of inherent danger but at least five – the potential scapegoats – have been left exposed.
But the party has previously shied away from sacrificing those found in serious breach of their duties by the public protector, and even those who have served jail time for dishonesty.
For example, former communications minister Dina Pule is almost certainly assured a seat in the next Parliament, despite Madonsela's adverse findings concerning her.
The potential scapegoats
There are many individuals who could be sacrificed on the altar of public outrage if the ANC finds it is not weathering the Nkandla storm as well as it might have hoped.
Although the party's selection of scapegoats often seems random to outsiders, these are the most likely candidates – higher than the level of mere pawns, but lower in the political food chain than security-cluster ministers.
Riah Phiyega, police commissioner
Although the ANC has expressed no official displeasure with ministers who misled the public on Nkandla, it is angry that Phiyega presented the Nkandla swimming pool as a "fire pool", and has called for action against her.
Minenhle Makhanya, Nkandla architect
With R16.5-million in Nkandla fees pocketed, and identified by the public protector as closely correlated with escalating costs, Makhanya is certainly in the crosshairs. But the uncomfortably small distance between him and Zuma may be cause for hesitation.
Geoff Doidge, former minister of public works
The beauty of Doidge as a scapegoat is that he genuinely was directly involved in Nkandla, and was ultimately responsible for much of the money spent on it. The political beauty, though, is that Doidge in effect already in exile as ambassador to Sri Lanka.
Thandeka Nene of Bonelena and Pamla Mfeka of Moneymine
The companies were the recipients of the bulk of the money spent on Nkandla, and a government finding has already all but accused the two of them of price-gouging.
Vejaynand Ramlakan, former surgeon general
Ramlakan was closely associated with the healthcare of former president Nelson Mandela, and the ANC still treads lightly when it comes to the military. On the other hand, Ramlakan is no longer serving in his post, and energetically defended health-related spending at Nkandla. He is reportedly already facing an internal investigation.
Possible mutiny over the bounty
A handful of individuals hold the power to change the course of the Nkandla story radically. It would require them to step well outside their historical comfort zones, but each has enough motive, just maybe, to make the leap, and leave the ANC strategy in tatters.
The Democratic Alliance shouts it from the rooftops, but within ANC ranks it is a quiet murmur. But there is an unmistakable nostalgia for the power-centralising days of the Mbeki administration. Taking a strong stand on the Nkandla scandal could help the former president to repair his legacy and, if he provided the direction, many would follow.
Patience, so the internal party wisdom goes, will result in ANC deputy president Ramaphosa becoming president in five years' time. But Zuma's deputy cannot be blind to the fact that he will inherit a party much weakened by another Zuma term, nor can he ignore the fate of Deputy President Kgalema Motlanthe, who had his faith rewarded with only the most abbreviated of terms in the top job. Going against the party line would earn Ramaphosa much long-term trouble, and the example made (including by himself as head of the ANC disciplinary committee) of Julius Malema is still fresh. But that risk is balanced against the consequences of inaction, and if those consequences continue to grow, Ramaphosa may find rebellion looking attractive.
The secretary general of the ANC wields enormous power in the party. To many an apparatchik, he embodies the party to a greater extent than does Zuma and the protective instinct he feels towards the ANC is powerful. If he made a plea for Zuma to be ousted for the good of the party, his nominal boss would have at least a fair fight on his hands.
Sheep turned vicious: Minenhle Makhanya, Geoff Doidge, et al
Architect Minenhle Makhanya knows where the bodies are buried. Even the public protector seems to believe that Makhanya took orders directly from Zuma. Former public works Minister Geoff Doidge, too, could link Zuma directly to spending decisions, and both may just be in possession of hard evidence. If they, or others in their position, find themselves led to the slaughter, they may not go down without a fight.
Some of the biggest mistakes of Nkandla
Before the ANC evidently took control of Nkandla strategy, there were what, with hindsight, serious mistakes in their handling of the Nkandla scandal. The most notable include:
Going for secrecy
Initially insisting that everything about Nkandla – the costs, the nature of the upgrades, the contractors involved, the legal authority used – must be kept secret backfired spectacularly. Instead of a single scandal it turned Nkandla into a multiyear striptease, renewing outrage with every new revelation. It also made several flip-flopping ministers into laughing stocks, and provided clear evidence that "because it might embarrass us" is reason enough for a top-secret classification.
Going for transparency
Secrecy was counterproductive, but transparency had its own problems. During the course of 2013 it became clear that South Africa would not accept the findings of the government's own investigation into Nkandla from the interministerial task team while the actual report was kept secret. But making the report public made it untenable to continue arguing that underlaying documents demanded through the Promotion of Access to Information Act had to remain secret. In releasing those documents to the M&G Centre for Investigative Journalism, the department of public works provided a treasure trove of official information that continues to undermine the official Nkandla narrative. The publication of those documents also made it impossible to continue to argue that the same documents were too secret to give to the public protector, removing one of the hurdles Thuli Madonsela faced in completing her work.
'Everyone is out to get us'
For years the government, the presidency, various ministers and the ANC have accused the media of manufacturing the Nkandla story, misinterpreting it, or otherwise doing wrong by the people of South Africa. Then Thuli Madonsela joined in, the ANC line still goes, timing her report to influence upcoming elections. Then there were the accusations of racism, and classism: the word "compound" betrayed racist sentiments, presidential spokesperson Mac Maharaj declared. Zuma told Parliament: "You believe that people like me cannot build a home." The sentiments were loyally echoed by loyal ANC members, but outside the party the claims of victimhood rang very hollow indeed.
Wishing the problem away
Attempts at starving the Nkandla story of new information failed as the department of public works sprang leaks. Attempts at playing for time and hoping the other side would walk away failed. The public protector persisted for two years, the media for four. Most spectacular, though, was the attempt to take Nkandla out of the spotlight through coercion. Publishing pictures of Nkandla may be illegal, State Security Minister Siyabonga Cwele said in November 2013, and media outlets should stop doing so. Every major daily newspaper in the country led with a picture of Nkandla the next day and the strange new policy was immediately abandoned.
It is the story that would define a presidency. Phillip de Wet pulls together four years of reporting about Nkandla into a compelling e-book, now available for $2.99 from Amazon.com and authorised Paperight outlets.