Jacob Zuma’s long-anticipated and reluctant appearance before the Commission of Inquiry into State Capture was visibly an ordeal for the former president.
It was also agonising for those condemned to have to endure the slow torture of Number One’s tediously evasive and unconvincing answers to questions put to him by the Commission. Not since the days of Richard Nixon’s tenure as the sleaziest president in United States history, has there been such an unedifying performance of a shifty-eyed politician wilting under television’s merciless focus.
Many will remember that Richard Nixon was narrowly defeated by John F Kennedy in the 1960 election, following a series of pivotal debates, the first ever to be televised. Polled afterwards, those who had heard the two on radio found Nixon the more convincing man. Those who watched had the opposite opinion, with the charismatic, open-faced Kennedy easily prevailing over the sullen-looking, slippery Nixon.
The viewers were proved right. The man dubbed Tricky Dicky for his ability to squirm and sidestep, went on to lie, steal, harass opponents and betray the US Constitution. He resigned in disgrace during his second term, when it became clear that impeachment was inevitable.
As with Nixon, the intense public scrutiny provided by Judge Raymond Zondo’s televised hearings over three days leaves one with an unflattering impression of Zuma. And when one considers the obvious career parallels between the two men, there’s only one conclusion to be reached: Sneaky Jake is the southern hemisphere’s trans-race reincarnation of Tricky Dicky.
On Monday, Zuma started the hearings eager to throw down the gauntlet to those who had crossed him by claiming that he had abetted the capture of state institutions by his now disgraced cronies, the Gupta clan. Former cabinet minister Ngoaka Ramatlhodi, who basically had told the inquiry that Zuma was the Gupta’s bitch — not only instantly doing their every bidding, but also the object of the clan’s disdain — was first in the sights.
Ramatlhodi, said Zuma, was a spy dating back to the apartheid years, acting on the instructions of unnamed foreign masters to discredit him. So, too, was Siphiwe Nyanda, the former head of the military and also once a minister in the Zuma administration.
There were many conspiracies against him, Zuma told the Commission. At least two foreign agencies and one local one had been trying over 30 years to tarnish his reputation and to ease his rivals into the leadership of the African National Congress.
There had been “numerous” attempts on his life, including a poisoning attempt, which he neglected to mention appeared to have been the deranged actions of a jealous wife. Recently, he confided, suicide bombers had been sent to kill him during a Durban concert, but he had cunningly foiled the attempt by simply not attending.
By the second day, the belligerence had faded under the steady flow of unemotional but probing questions on allegations made by others before Zondo. Zuma picked his way through evidence leader Paul Pretorius’s questions as cautiously as if he had been dumped blindfolded in a minefield.
He appeared physically uncomfortable and could virtually not utter a sentence without hesitating, clearing his throat, or flicking a pink lizard-like tongue over his lips. Sadly, Zuma seems to have been afflicted by the same neurological decline that has attacked many cadres who have had to give evidence under oath before a judicial inquiry: “I can’t remember … I don’t remember … I can’t recall … I’m not sure … I don’t know”, was the monotonous refrain.
The social media wits were quick to seize on this, dubbing as Zumnesia this latest version of memory lapse. It's defining clinical characteristic is the ability to remember when to forget.
When he did answer, Zuma’s replies were convoluted and confusing. Sometimes, JZ would roll his eyes back into his head until only the whites were showing, as if he were desperately hoping to find a credible answer scribbled, like a schoolboy’s crib note, on the inside of his cranium.
Many of the responses — punctuated by lip-smacking, grunts and grimaces — meandered for ages through intricate neural byways to end in cul-de-sacs. When one had pretty much forgotten what the original question was, the reply would at long last find its way to the Commission’s doorstep — tired, dishevelled and unintelligible.
Whether this was the genuine ineptness of a man who has always been notoriously inarticulate, at least in English, or whether it is part of a cunning avoidance strategy, will be for Judge Zondo to assess. By Wednesday, however, the intellectual sludge had become almost unbearable. It was, one imagines, a relief to everyone when his counsel stood to object against the “poor line” that the “unfair" proceedings were taking Zuma, who had been brought before the inquiry under “false pretences”.
In response, Zondo adjourned the proceedings to Friday. This would allow Zuma and his team to reflect on whether there was a way forward that would allow the inquiry to pose meaningful questions while not leaving Zuma feeling unfairly done by.
Later it was announced that Zuma would return to face the inquiry Since it is unlikely that a compromise could have been reached that would allow such mutually exclusive outcomes — Pretorius and Zuma both happy with the cross-examination — this is major climb down by the former president. Zondo successfully called his bluff.
Years after having to resign, Nixon still remained of the opinion, expressed in a TV interview, that “if the president does it, it can’t be illegal”. It is clear that Zuma, like Nixon, has a similar sense of self-importance and believes that he and his party are above the petty strictures of the law.
It’s worth recalling that Zuma has said that the ANC is more important than the South African Constitution. On another occasion, he went further, saying that the party is more important than the nation.
There can no meaningful inquiry, no matter how carefully the Commission’s officials temper their words, that can bow before such megalomania. Zuma, in turn, is desperate for a deal that will spare him a ruinous future of trying to avoid further investigations, criminal trials and the possibility of prison time.
Tricky Dicky’s evasion of criminal prosecution and a jail cell came courtesy a presidential pardon by his successor, Gerald Ford. It is entirely possible that President Cyril Ramaphosa may go for this option as part of a deal that sees Sneaky Jake’s political toxicity quarantined permanently to Nkandla.
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