Editorial: 9/12 – The day Zuma betrayed a nation

Exactly one year ago, on December 9 2015, we had just one question: Who the hell was David Douglas Des van Rooyen?

With less than a day to go until the next issue of this newspaper, the Mail & Guardian mobilised to find out more about the man who had just been named minister of finance.

Databases were scoured, phone calls were made, sources were cajoled, threads were followed. The results were meagre. It was not our ignorance that made Van Rooyen a mystery; even within the political establishment it was hard to find anyone who had so much as heard his name. Who was he? The answer turned out to be simple: a complete unknown.

This raised the second question: Why had President Jacob Zuma given the keys to South Africa’s treasury to this minor player?

That answer was painfully slow to emerge, but the weeks, then months, brought snippets of information and allegations: visits to the Gupta family compound, Gupta-linked advisers, prior knowledge of his appointment within Gupta circles, failed previous Gupta machinations, and investigations into suspect payments from state-owned enterprises to Gupta-linked businesses.

But the search for those answers – and the often lurid sideshow that was Pravin Gordhan’s experiences after taking over from Van Rooyen after just four days – obscured the one truly important question that will have a major influence on the future of the country: What was Zuma risking by appointing Van Rooyen?

The answer, we now know, is: everything.

In the immediate aftermath of the shock firing of finance minister Nhlanla Nene before Van Rooyen’s appointment, there was confusion and so no rebellion. Four days later, there was apparent capitulation, and Zuma swapped Van Rooyen for Gordhan – and so no action was taken against him.

Later still, Zuma offered an explanation, first that Nene was bound for bigger things, then that Van Rooyen was eminently qualified for the job – and at least some people accepted that. Then there was confusion again as campaigns were launched to discredit Gordhan as an appointee of white capitalists.

Confusion, capitulation and explanation bought time but not immunity. One year later, Zuma has been roundly rejected. Surveys show that, on a good day, one in five South Africans approves of the president. Physical force is required for him so much as to address the Parliament that appointed him.

There is open mutiny among his own Cabinet, party elders and party branches. Civil society and even the usually lily-livered business sector have made their views known.

And the reason is December 9 2015.

It seemed particularly significant when, in March, the highest court in the land found Zuma had contravened the Constitution but that is already largely forgotten. South Africa does not have a long memory for something as mundane as a politician feathering his own nest.

The cloud of arms-deal corruption allegations that yet again hangs over Zuma’s head, with possible future prosecution, does his reputation no favours. But anyone who suspects that he is up for sale has suspected that for many years now.

Selling an entire country to the highest bidder is something altogether different, whether or not it meets the legal test for treason – for betraying the country and his party.

Even the most explosive allegations of state capture find Zuma behind the scenes, either as the largely invisible puppet master or just a name to be bandied about. On December 9 2015, however, he stepped into the light, acted without support or coercion and betrayed South Africa.

And whatever happens from here on out, history will remember that.

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