Surely not another case of financial impropriety involving President Jacob Zuma? Last week’s Mail & Guardian lead story provoked feelings of déjà vu for the umpteenth time. What is the problem? Either the president does not understand his ethical obligations as South Africa’s first citizen, or he pretends not to understand them, or he sees himself as governed by another, perhaps “traditional”, moral code. Whatever the case, he tends to brush off such concerns as a nonissue.
Consider his claim during the election campaign that only “clever people” worry about the Nkandla scandal. The uproar over this abuse of the public purse, he appeared to say, is captious sniping by the chattering classes – ordinary, sensible people know better.
The suggestion is that the mass of South Africans have no interest in clean government – or that they believe Number One can do as he pleases with their tax rands.
In fact, one’s sense is that Nkandla, and all the other financial controversies that have sullied Zuma’s reputation over the years, are increasingly becoming an issue for voters.
The ANC’s poor electoral performance in major metropolitan areas can be seen as flowing, in part, from growing anger over the government’s cavalier refusal to account for official sleaze – a stance Zuma has come to personify.
It is not only the media that see it in this way; privately, some senior members of his own party concede that he is a chronic spendthrift whose tendency to treat the fiscus as his personal piggybank has become a growing political liability.
As indicated in last week’s M&G story, one of his methods is to lend support to business deals in “nod- and-wink” encounters that he does not set up himself, but that are arranged for him by connected individuals.
And even if he does not himself motivate for preferential treatment, the favoured status of particular companies and people is known to state officials, who do what they believe is expected of them.
As Zuma begins his second term, it is worth restating a few principles that apply to elected officials, and pre-eminently heads of state:
• It is wrong to accept undeclared gifts or favours from private interests, and certainly not when they are doing business, or could do business, with the government:
The Shaik Principle. To support his prodigal spending habits, Zuma took “loans” from a host of benefactors, including convicted fraudster Schabir Shaik, whose business operations he assisted, and billionaire Vivian Reddy, a major beneficiary of state tenders.
•?It is wrong to piggyback on legitimate government projects to acquire personal benefits:
The Nkandla Principle. In addition to the private gains accruing from the security upgrade at his homestead, listed by the public protector, there are unanswered questions about who paid for the construction of up to five houses for his personal use.
•?It is wrong to use political influence to secure gifts, favours or business opportunities for family members:
The Gupta Principle. The Gupta family, which appears to have benefited from state assistance in various ways, has handed out shares and jobs to Zuma’s relatives, principally his son, Duduzane, and fourth wife, Bongi Ngema-Zuma. The lead story in last week’s M&G described how Zuma allegedly lent his presidential weight to a deal that advanced the business interests of his nephew, Khulubuse.
•?It is wrong to give relatives or friends privileged access to state institutions or personnel:
The Waterkloof Principle. Apart from the Guptas’ use of the military air base to land an aircraft for a private function, there are constant rumours that they have direct access to ministers and top officials.
•?It is wrong to solicit or accept hand-outs from state-controlled organisations, or to allow relatives to do so:
The Masibambisane principle. The agriculture department, Telkom and the public service department have made large donations to Zuma’s private trusts and foundations, most controversially the Masibambisane Rural Development Initiative. State departments have also contributed to the Thobeka Madiba-Zuma Foundation, controlled by his fifth wife.
•?When lower-level officials binge public money in a bid to curry favour with their political principals, they should be reined in, not indulged:
The public works principle. There can be little doubt that Zuma knew what sycophantic officials of the public works department were laying on for him at Nkandla. There is no evidence that he tried to curb their excesses.
One does not have to be a “clever person” to grasp these ideas. They boil down to two central precepts: leaders should not abuse public office for private gain. And they should not expose themselves to the slightest perception of a conflict between their private interests and public responsibilities.
Drew Forrest is an associate partner at the M&G Centre for Investigative Journalism (amaBhungane).