100207 - Cape Town - Paarl - Jacob Zuma spoke at a Community Hall in Mbekweni near Paarl. After arriving 3 and a half hours late Zuma spoke to the crowd for around 30 minutes before leading them in Mshimiwami - Photo: Matthew Jordaan

To many supporters, the ANC is not just a name above a box they tick every five years – it remains a promise, a source of hope and comfort, says Murray Williams.

Cape Town - South Africa was all abuzz this week as “Nkandlagate” ratcheted into top gear. There were the headlines – brazen, like “Unfit to be president”.

There were the determined assurances, like that from DA Gauteng leader Mmusi Maimane, who tweeted: “Letter confirming that the crime of #Nkandla is being investigated by the SAPS National Investigation Unit.” – later retweeted by Helen Zille.

There was the dismay, like that from commentator Ranjeni Munusamy, who wrote: “The situation would be almost comical if it were not so serious.”

She speculated about the likelihood of Zuma being sworn in for a second term, set against his litany of judgment failures, warning: “The most solemn of moments in any democracy, the presidential oath of office, will be a pre-violated farce.”

There was the outrage, like from author Stephen Grootes, who charged that Zuma’s response “insults every South African, female and male, young and old, poor and rich, well-read and illiterate, citizen and peasant, black, white, Indian and coloured. It insults our intelligence, it insults our sense of decency.”

And yet despite this roar of outrage, Zuma stood solid. And, from the distance of a quiet Garden Route town, some rock-solid truths became clear .

First, President Zuma is certainly not going to fall on his sword, and anyone who thought he might has been smoking something illegal.

Remember, this was the man who faced 783 charges of corruption, fraud, money-laundering and racketeering, and yet who calmly fought them, found an ingenious solution, was unperturbed by the subsequent outrage, and happily took his seat in the Union Buildings as our fourth president of the democratic era. This is an extremely tough man with iron purpose.

And the second truth is even blunter: the latest Zuma skandaal isn’t going to hurt the ANC one bit.

In most other countries, similar woes would be catastrophic to a political party with elections so near. And yet the ANC appears immune.

Not only do its most senior office-bearers appear unrattled, many voters seem unfazed too.

In the words of one Xhosa-speaking woman in Knysna yesterday: “All that money of ours spent on Nkandla! But you know what: Zuma is not the party. He is just the leader. They’ll keep him for the elections – for the Zulu vote in KwaZulu-Natal. But after the election, they’ll find a solution for him, and the ANC will carry on as usual.” She shrugged. “I will vote ANC for what they have done for me here (Knysna) – not there (Pretoria).”

The lessons are clear: first, you underestimate the ANC brand power at your peril. To many supporters, the ANC is not just a name above a box they tick every five years – it remains a promise, a source of hope and comfort.

When the ANC says it’s bigger than even its senior individuals, that happens to be true. The party has an extraordinary ability to transcend, as a brand, both its most iconic and notorious leaders.

For anyone hoping to entice ANC voters, beware: you’ve a hundred-and-some years of catch-up to play.

The biggest scandal to hit the ANC is no match for a century of hard-earned goodwill and loyalty.

* Murray Williams’s column Shooting from the Lip appears in the Cape Argus every Friday. Follow him on Twitter: @mwdeadline

Cape Argus