It has always been a mystery what it would take to provoke a reaction from President Jacob Zuma. Crisis after crisis hit his administration and yet the president has remained impassive and unresponsive. It turns out that his home at Nkandla is his Achilles’ heel. Scrutiny on state-funded renovations to his private residence prompted an unprecedented and emotional tirade from Zuma in Parliament. But opposition MPs struck some serious body blows too, with comparisons to Comical Ali and the emperor with no clothes.
“Mr President, why are you so quiet? Why do we not see decisive leadership on your part?”
The question came from Congress of the People leader Mosiuoa Lekota during the president’s question time in Parliament on Thursday, but it could have been asked by 51 million South Africans at any point during the three-and-a-half years Zuma has been president. Lekota was asking the question in the context of the wave of mining strikes and violence that has now exploded in farming communities in the Western Cape.
“Right now, the country is in turmoil; the levels of unrest and civil disobedience are climbing every day… Our situation is going to be become completely untenable. Extraordinary conditions and circumstances require extraordinary efforts on the part of leadership,” Lekota said.
The reply was vintage Zuma, meandering logic posing other questions to obfuscate the original one: “One of the interesting things is a definition of the leadership of this country. Now, I don’t know what do we have here in this Parliament. Whether these are not leaders of their own parties. And the pertinent question, what do they do in this House to give leadership to this country as representatives of the people, the public. Now why then should the question be selective? Is this not a leadership? Are you not a leader?” Zuma asked.
“This call, that there is no leadership in this country, is totally out of order. There’s a leadership in this country which you could divide in[to] many categories. In political parties… there’s a leadership in government, there’s a leadership in society,” he said, sidestepping the question about his own leadership.
He gave a similar zigzagging response when African Christian Democratic Party leader Kenneth Meshoe asked why Zuma had been quiet when calls were made to make the Western Cape “ungovernable”.
“Well, I don't know what it means, exactly. Absolutely… Unless you unpack it to me, what it means, because it might mean either protest because of the very harsh conditions here, which is happening throughout the country.
“I don't know what it means. If you unpack it to me I will be able to make a very intelligent comment to you,” Zuma said.
But this was a highly charged session in Parliament – one opposition MP accused Zuma of being in denial about South Africa’s multiple crises like former Iraqi president Saddam Hussein’s spindoctor Comical Ali – and the opposition parties were not prepared to let Zuma off the hook.
They were already smarting over the ANC using its muscle to block a debate over their motion of no confidence in the president.
The programming committee, which discusses the business of Parliament, chaired by the Speaker Max Sisulu, announced that the motion would not come before the House. The committee usually reaches its decisions on the programme by consensus.
“Following extensive deliberations where all parties expressed and argued for their positions in relation to the motion, it became clear that the two positions – to schedule or not to schedule the motion – were irreconcilable,” read a statement issued by Parliament on Thursday.
Democratic Alliance parliamentary leader Lindiwe Mazibuko vowed that this was not the end of the matter, as the decision by the programming committee “ha[d] not only ushered in a Constitutional crisis, but… brought into question the relevance of our democratically elected Parliament”.
In a follow-up question on the downgrades by international rating agencies, Mazibuko said there were increasing concerns about South Africa’s future and political stability. She accused Zuma of trying to “pass the buck” on leadership. “We elected you to run this country as its leader. You are not doing the job adequately,” she told him.
“Will he explain to the house, this house that elected him… that in the face of increasing economic instability under his leadership, why he deserves to continue his term of office as president of the Republic of South Africa?” Mazibuko asked.
Zuma chuckled, saying the country was stable and that strikes were a feature of democracy.
The Inkatha Freedom Party’s Mario Oriani-Ambrosini used Zuma’s play on the features of democracy to ask: “What is difference between preventing the holding of elections and not allowing the vote of no confidence?
“How can you authorise your party, your caucus, to prevent this side of the house to hold a vote of no confidence, which will have an enormous impact on the credit grading of the country?" Oriani-Ambrosini added.
Zuma replied that he was not an MP and did not participate in the processes of Parliament.
Throughout the question session, opposition MPs tried to steer Zuma towards the issue everyone wanted answers to: the R250-million upgrade to his Nkandla residence at the taxpayer’s expense. The issue has been the subject of much controversy after the exorbitant spending had been revealed in the media and government tried to conceal the matter behind the Apartheid-era National Key Points Act.
Zuma had up to now steered clear of the matter, deferring questions to the Minister of Public Works Thulas Nxesi, while his spokesman Mac Maharaj has instead dwelt on the opposition and media’s use of the words “compound” and “homestead” in reference to the president’s Nkandla residence, claiming these were racist terms.
Zuma’s last question session in Parliament for the year was closely watched as Mazibuko had submitted a question on the Nkandla issue. She asked whether Zuma had instructed Nxesi to cease all building on his home pending the outcome of an investigation announced by the Public Protector.
Mazibuko’s question was the last of six questions Zuma was answering on Thursday, building towards a dramatic finale. Even when the DA’s Wilmot James tried to yank Zuma’s chain by asking why such a large amount of state funding was being used on upgrading his private home “fit for an emperor with no clothes, which is you, sir”, the president held out till he got to the last question.
Then the pent-up rage tumbled out like an avalanche.
Zuma began by reading the scripted response in which he drew a distinction between the expansion to the homestead and the security installations.
“My residence in Nkandla has been paid for by the Zuma family. All the buildings, and every room we use in that residence, was built by ourselves as family and not by government. I have never asked government to build a home for me, and it has not done so,” Zuma said, claiming that only the security enhancements were funded by the Department of Public Works.
But after reading the written response, Zuma launched into an unprecedented tirade, explaining that he and his family had decided to extend their home at their own expense and that government began upgrading the security features while the renovations were in progress.
He claimed he was still paying off a mortgage bond for the renovations.
Zuma said he felt “aggrieved” by the uproar that the renovations were funded by the taxpayer. “On TV, they showed the house that I paid for.
And they lie that it has been built by government. It has not been built by government. I have an opportunity today to explain this. Because my name is being used wrongly. My family is being undermined. Even by Honourable Members, who don’t ask… what actually happened. And I feel very aggrieved, I must tell you for the first time,” Zuma said.
Zuma said the only money spent by the government on his home was for security features, including fencing, bullet-proof windows and a bunker.
He took a swipe at DA leader Helen Zille’s failed attempt to inspect the residence.
"You have leaders of political parties – who don’t know whether they’re provincial or national – making trips to come and photograph my house… And making a laughing stock of my family. I take exception to this.”
Some of Zuma’s comments revealed that he had been stewing on this issue for a long time, although he gave no indication as to why he did not speak out before and had to be forced into giving answers by the opposition. He also did not share any facts or figures, instead using the platform to release his bottled-up emotions.
“Prove to me where have I used all this money… I have been convicted, painted black, called the first-class corruption man on facts that are not tested. I take exception,” Zuma said, in a rare display of emotion, his voice breaking intermittently.
“It is unfair, and I don’t want to use harsher words because you believe that people like me can’t build a home,” Zuma said, looking at Mazibuko.
But Mazibuko came back fighting, saying their grievance was the fact that the security enhancements were being conducted at Zuma’s private home, not a state residence. She said the upgrade included 31 new buildings, six of which cost R8 million each; a R2.3 million lift to the bunker; R1.5 million for air-conditioning systems for each of the houses; a visitor centre; a gymnasium; and guest rooms.
“Are these security enhancements? The fact that this is the Honourable President's private home is something that we take exception to. The government does not have a responsibility to upgrade, at a cost of R250 million, the private home [of the president],” Mazibuko said.
Zuma said Mazibuko’s figures were based on information that was not accurate. He said he and his family had only built five additional houses.
“She is [speaking of] a huge number of houses I have nothing to do with.
She then adds the amount of money on houses that [I] have never paid...
I paid for my houses. There are five... Don't include things that don't belong to me,” Zuma said.
During the heated exchange on the matter, there was one statement uttered by Zuma that goes to the heart of all the controversy swirling around him: “I think you must respect me.”
He seems to be unaware of the adage that respect is earned, not just given. The way Zuma commands his administration has not earned him respect because he does not show leadership, even when the situation demands it of him. He in turn shows very little respect to the electorate by not being accountable for his actions.
The people who elected Zuma have their homes, safety and livelihood threatened through their economic and social circumstances without as much as an acknowledgement from him. Somehow, that simple fact of South African life doesn't seem to upset our Honourable President. It took an onslaught over his home to get him to show some emotions. If only these emotions and conviction were also kept warm for the delivery backlogs, education crisis, poverty pandemic, screaming incompetence, police brutality and daily injustices that this country suffers.