Opinion / 20 July 2019, 1:05pm / William Saunderson-Meyer
Jacob Zuma’s long-anticipated, reluctant appearance before the Commission of Inquiry Into Allegations of State Capture was visibly an ordeal for the former president.
It was also agonising for those condemned to having to endure the slow torture of the former 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 US 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 in the 1960 election by John F Kennedy, after a series of pivotal debates, the first ever to be televised. Polled afterwards, those who had heard the two on radio found Nixon more convincing. Those who watched had the opposite opinion, with charismatic, open-faced Kennedy easily prevailing over the apparently sullen, shifty Nixon.
The watchers 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 Justice Raymond Zondo’s televised hearings, over three days, leaves one with an unflattering picture of Zuma. And then 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 apparently eager to throw down the gauntlet to those who had crossed him, in claiming that he had abetted the capture of state institutions by his now disgraced cronies, the Gupta clan.
Former cabinet minister Ngoako Ramatlhodi was first in the former president’s 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 for more than 30 years to tarnish his reputation.
Recently, he confided, suicide bombers had been sent to kill him during a Durban concert, an attempt he foiled 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 who had testified before Zondo. Zuma picked his way through evidence leader Paul Pretorius’s questions as circumspectly as if lost blindfolded in a minefield.
He appeared physically uncomfortable and could virtually not utter a sentence without hesitating or clearing his throat. Sadly, Zuma seems to have been afflicted by the same neurological decline that has attacked many who have had to give evidence under oath: “I can’t remember I don’t remember I’m not sure I don’t know” was the monotonous refrain.
When he did answer, Zuma’s replies were convoluted and confusing. Sometimes, he 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 crib note, on the inside of his cranium.
By Wednesday, however, the intellectual sludge had become unbearable. It was a relief when his counsel stood up to object to the “poor line” that the “unfair” proceedings were taking. In response, Zondo adjourned to Friday, to allow reflection on whether there was a way forward.
Nixon always believed that “if the president did it, it can’t be illegal”. It is clear that Zuma, like Nixon, has a similar sense of self-importance.
Let’s forget that Zuma once told his supporters that the ANC was more important than the Constitution. On another occasion, he went further, saying that the party was more important than the nation.
There is no meaningful line of inquiry, no matter how carefully the commission’s officials temper their words, that can accommodate such megalomania. Sneaky Jake is sliding towards the exit.
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