01 Apr 2014 | Tony Leon | Original Publication: BDlive
As Zuma views his imminent re-election, he might pause to contemplate what his political legacy will be, other than Nkandla, writes Tony Leon
THE Delphic oracle, according to Greek legend, provided answers about the future, on a cryptic basis, via Pythia, the priestess of the god Apollo, and then only on the seventh day after the new moon. No doubt she had reasons for her silence, since she was believed to be connected to the divine.
Some two-and-a-half-thousand years later, give or take, African National Congress (ANC) leader in the Northern Cape John Block announced, according to a report last week, that "walking with President Jacob Zuma is like walking with God". Apparently this might have been mangled in translation or transmission since the local ANC denied the remark was made with reference to the president. That’s a pity, as I thought the remark added some spice to a remarkably lacklustre election campaign to date.
But although Zuma is known for his long silences, and often enigmatic remarks, he is in many ways a leader of tradition who has the misfortune of being a politician in the modern age of instant communication. He couldn’t keep his counsel forever, or for much more than two weeks after the release of the report on Nkandla by the public protector. But his defence of it remained Delphic, or at least question-begging. He was quoted as saying: "I’ve done nothing wrong. Even if they look underneath a tree or a rock they won’t find anything against me. I’m not guilty."
About a decade ago, when he was fending off one or other corruption scandal on his watch, president Thabo Mbeki berated parliamentarians for attaching the American suffix "gate’’ to every local act of political skulduggery or financial impropriety. Then it was "Oilgate"; but no one apparently listened to this admonition as 10 years later, the saga of improper expenditure and undue enrichment in the president’s private homestead has been dubbed "Nkandlagate". Zuma’s line of defence, uttered at the weekend in Gugulethu, in Cape Town, did have a slightly familiar, Watergate ring to it. After all, then US president Richard Nixon memorably said in a major speech on the scandal which engulfed, and ultimately destroyed, his presidency in November 1973: "I have never profited from public service. I have earned every cent. People have got to know whether their president is a crook. Well, I’m not a crook. I’ve earned everything I’ve got." Within nine months of that remark, and notwithstanding a sweeping re-election victory in November 1972 (by 61% to 37%, one of the greatest margins in the US) shortly after news of the scandal first broke, Nixon resigned.
Of course, Nixon was not done in by this self-described "third-rate burglary" of the offices of the Democratic National Committee in the famous Watergate building but by the subsequent cover-up and essentially by one so-called "smoking gun" tape which conclusively proved his personal involvement in the scandal and covering its traces. But, in terms appropriate for a Greek tragedy, his downfall was owed to another Grecian term: "hubris" or overweening pride and arrogance. Nixon installed his secret Oval Office taping system in order to capture for posterity his geo-strategic designs to reshape the modern world order. Instead, in a frisson of local familiarity, the "smoking gun" tape revealed that the president and his key aide, HR Haldeman, discussed having the Central Intelligence Agency ask the Federal Bureau of Investigation to halt its probe of the Watergate break-in by claiming the burglary was a "national security operation".
Nkandla — thousands of miles and decades removed from Nixon’s White House and the Watergate building — at least provides political continuity for the disreputable political stratagem of misusing the concept of "national security" — or in local jargon a "national key point" — to cover up a political scandal. But there are probably far more differences than similarities between these two presidencies and the mushroom clouds of scandal which engulf both. For one thing, Zuma is not apparently involved in a cover-up but more in the origins of the Nkandla project itself and on his own version sees nothing wrong with the expenditure of more than R250m on his private residence.
But the other major difference is that while Nixon’s presidency and his persona will be imperishably associated with the Watergate scandal and his name will be memorialised as a synonym for the corruption of high office, it is not the only legacy he left to posterity.
He also achieved what he set out to do in terms of reshaping the world order. He was the first US president to visit both Beijing and Moscow and to have begun the extrication of US forces from the quagmire of Vietnam. It was — in the words of supreme US historian John Lewis Gaddis, in other respects an arch-Nixon critic — "a performance of the great grand strategists Metternich, Castlereagh and Bismarck".
As Zuma views his imminent re-election, he might pause to contemplate what his political legacy will be, other than Nkandla.
• Leon is the author of The Accidental Ambassador (Pan Macmillan). Follow him on Twitter: @TonyLeonSA OR on Facebook: facebook.com/TonyLeonSA