Andrew Donaldson on the President's latest effort to not answer questions in parliament


THERE was a time, not too long ago, when the President expressed a great antipathy towards the law.

He had always criticised legal people, Accused Number One would tell us. Theirs was not the African way, it was the white man’s way. The law was too harsh and overly complicated when it came to solving problems. 

Cold facts weighed in on warm bodies, was how he once put it. Another time, he said, “Law looks at one side only, [lawyers] don’t look at any other thing.”

Now it seems that he is Perry Mason.

This at least was the view of some of the regulars at the Mahogany Ridge following Jacob Zuma’s explanation on Thursday, during his last parliamentary question session for the year, why he was unable to fire Bathabile Dlamini, the social development minister.

Prior to his perverse legal twist — it’s not often we get to see ace criminal defence lawyers trying to convince the jury of their own innocence, even in bad crime fiction — it was pretty much a case of the same old, same old from Zuma. 

He was in turn willfully smug, arrogant, obtuse, obfuscatory, scornful, disdainful, dismissive and contemptuous, hamming it up for his chums like the class moron fooling around while teacher was out the room.

At times he was infuriatingly pedantic. When Pieter Groenewald dared to suggest that the President had no idea how crime affected ordinary citizens because he had surrounded himself with a “brigade of bodyguards”, Zuma responded by suggesting the Freedom Front Plus’s MP’s question was misleading and he couldn’t answer it; he didn’t have that many bodyguards.

Technically speaking, a brigade is, of course, a subdivision of an army, typically consisting of a small number of infantry battalions and or other units and forming part of a division. Groenewald had used the term as a figure of speech, but the thief-in-chief has no times for such tricksy Western stuff.

There are no known collective nouns but, for the record and towards a more picturesque discourse in the National Assembly, may we suggest, next time, MPs refer to a bully of bodyguards? Or a pig of protectors?

At other times, Zuma just played deaf. After a difficult question from Cope MP Deidre Carter — well, difficult in that it had a few more clauses than he could deal with — Zuma turned to the Speaker, Baleka Mbete, and pleaded, “How can I answer the question? I did not hear.”

It was so outrageous that, for a moment it appeared that Mbete would burst into laughter. But no. That flicker passed and a stoniness set in once more.

Zuma was all ears, though, when the opposition rounded on Bathabile Dlamini. 

He was just reminding the House that there were no failures, just the big problems that were the legacy of apartheid, when DA leader Mmusi Maimane chipped in that the minister was not apartheids problem. “She is incompetent. She simply cannot do the job of delivering grants to South Africans,” he said.

Poor Dlamini. She’s had a week of it. Her fellow MPs, she claimed, were conniving to get her imprisoned, she’s had to suffer taunts from DA chief whip John Steenhuisen about her favorite brand of Scotch and the “patriarchy” had put the kibosh on her claims about the Sassa deadlock with the SA Post Office.

But now the great patriarch was coming to her defence with another dose of trusted obfuscation. “Why are you defending apartheid?” Zuma asked Maimane. “You were a victim of apartheid, why are you defending it?”

Maimane was persistent. “Why have you kept Minister Dlamini in her job?”

“If you remove her, who is going to implement the order?” Zuma said. “She has been directed to deliver on the order of the Constitutional Court. What will I say to the Constitutional Court if I shift this minister? That’s why she’s there, to do so.”

If that wasn’t enough, this new-found respect for the courts, there came the great legal coup de grâce, and the gallery’s gob was truly smacked.

Referring to the public protector’s state of capture report, which he has taken on judicial review, and why he was loth to establish a commission of inquiry into state capture, Zuma said: 

“If the matter is in court, I couldn’t establish the commission of the same thing… You want me to break the law? While the matter is in court, I establish a parallel commission? I would not do so. 

“Sub! Joo! Dick! Her! Heh. Heh. Heh…”

Zuma was trying to explain the sub judice concept to the House. Incredible. Years of legal wrangling to stay out of court had taught him something after all.

This article first appeared in the Weekend Argus.