/ 2 July 2015

Editorial: Number One’s unforgivable sins

Marikana families listen to President Zuma presenting the report of the Farlam commission of inquiry.
Marikana families listen to President Zuma presenting the report of the Farlam commission of inquiry.

South Africans have a proud tradition of forgiveness for trespasses against us, both big and small. We forgave the perpetrators of apartheid and we continually forgive Bafana Bafana for their poor performance. Our leniency knows few bounds.

But there are limits, and President Jacob Zuma is testing them sorely. With his time at the helm rapidly running out, he will learn the hard way that South Africans – and history – do not forgive all.

His mishandling of the release last week of the Farlam commission of inquiry report on the Marikana massacre added affront to atrocity.

After sitting on the report for 12 weeks, the president did not see fit to give the widows of miners gunned down by police any notice that he would be releasing it, leaving others to scramble to inform them in the six short hours before he did.

Why did it take 12 weeks for Zuma to process the report, a window of opportunity that he defended in court as his right? To write a single letter to his police commissioner Riah Phiyega, it seems. Other than that single action, he appears to have done nothing but to print out the report’s recommendations in order to read them to a camera.

This callous disregard for the dead and those who survive them we may have found within ourselves to condone; sloth and incompetence are not uncommon among our public servants, nor any reason to discontinue paying them their ever-increasing salaries.

The breezy way in which Zuma absolved himself and his Cabinet from all blame with a clear falsehood, however, was a bridge too far. The Farlam commission, he told the nation, had held the Cabinet blameless for the massacre.

“The counsel for injured and arrested persons alleged that [former police] minister [Nathi] Mthethwa was the cause of the Marikana massacre and that he must be held accountable for the death of 34 miners,” Zuma read from prepared notes. “The commission found that the executive played no role in the decision of the police to implement the tactical option on August 16 2012 if the strikers did not lay down their arms, which led to the deaths of the 34 persons.”

The commission found no such thing. In reality, it found that it was “unable … to find positively in minister Mthethwa’s favour”, and saw fit to make a pointed recommendation to the effect that the executive should keep its nose out of police operations – and if it saw fit to advise at all, the advice must be recorded.

Did Zuma and his ministers have a direct hand in killing protesting miners? Not according to the findings of the inquiry. Should Zuma and his ministers take political responsibility for the slaughter? The question hardly needs answering.

The impunity the executive claims for itself is clearly illustrated by Zuma’s handling of Phiyega with kid gloves. There was no immediate suspension for the commissioner whose competency has now formally been challenged, and she was given a full month to add to the response she already gave the Farlam commission – a month during which the consequences she does face will, we daresay, depend more on Zuma’s reading of the political winds than such inconveniences as facts.

It has been a grim few weeks of mounting evidence of this impunity Zuma believes he is entitled to, and the way in which evidence is not suffered to stand in his way.

His current police minister, Nathi Nhleko, merrily continues to make a fool of himself as he peddles lies and distortions to keep Zuma personally unaccountable for state spending at Nkandla. The party he leads brazenly continues to declare its defiance of the judiciary and, by extension, Parliament, on the Omar al-Bashir scandal. He is willing to subvert everything from the Constitution and its chapter nine institutions, such as the public protector, to the very basis of our democracy for his own convenience, not bothering even to mount a believable defence or construct a plausible lie. The contempt he evinces for the citizens of this country is breathtaking.

There is only one glimmer of hope on the horizon, and it is nothing more than a glimmer. This week the ANC’s alliance partners (tentatively, and ultimately unsuccessfully) tried to challenge the party on Nkandla. There are still those in our ruling political structure who recognise when enough is enough.

Though it be early days, the halls of the ANC are abuzz with the phrase “two centres of power”. The idea that the party rejected under Zuma’s leadership, that the ANC can have one president and the country another, is apparently not as unthinkable as it was circa 2007, when Thabo Mbeki still held the big chair although he had in effect been unseated at Polokwane.

Will Zuma attempt to run for a third term as ANC president? Nothing he has said or done convinces us that he will not. Will those at the top of the ANC, caught in the web he has spun out of patronage and clientelism, allow him to make it onto the ballot? To date, their cowardly supplication gives us no reason to doubt it.

Ultimately, though, as the party itself never tires of telling us, the ANC is a grass-roots democracy. It recognises no authority higher than its members, and prides itself on being a self-healing, self-cleansing organisation. It will ultimately be up to the members of the party to decide how it deals with the stain Marikana has left: to embed it in the party’s fabric for another five years, or finally to hold accountable he who will not hold himself take responsibility for anything. And there is an urgent need for a strong Parliament to prevent any future Zuma from acting with impunity and indifference.