TO EVADE detailed explanations over gargantuan government spending on his rural hacienda, President Jacob Zuma and his acolytes have evoked everything from state secrecy and executive dignity to emotive claims about rural tradition and white prejudice. It’s a scatter-gun approach. Inconsistency seems to be developing into a defensive Cabinet habit. This succeeds only in tying the government into ever knottier complications.
When ministers begin to contradict each other, and sometimes even themselves, it betrays an increasing lack of central direction and conviction. Recently the government, despite a preoccupation with the "secrecy bill" and snooping foreign agents, has successfully exposed its own worst blunders. Police Minister Nathi Mthethwa resorted to court in an attempt to prevent an inquiry into policing in Khayelitsha, instituted by Western Cape premier Helen Zille at the request of community organisations. Mthethwa dismissed Zille’s commission as "politicking" and claimed there was no problem with vigilante murders in Khayelitsha.
Yet a report by national police commissioner Riah Phiyega, ironically lodged with Mthethwa’s own court papers, revealed there have been 78 vigilante killings in Khayelitsha in less than a year: an average of six a month. You don’t really need a vexatious official opposition when the government itself is quite capable of exposing its own "politicking" — and even provides the irrefutable evidence.
This was followed by a heated dispute about how many Gulfstream jet flights, at a cost of R200,000 a trip, Lindiwe Sisulu took when she was defence minister. Democratic Alliance MP David Maynier alleged she had taken 200 such flights between Cape Town and Pretoria. Sisulu, who is now the Minister of Public Service and Administration, replied that she used the luxury jet only 35 times and accused Maynier of having "a flea-infested body".
The question is: where did those irritating fleas come from? Maynier was never able to elicit particulars of Sisulu’s travel arrangements when she was in charge of defence, because she claimed such information was a state secret. Instead, he got his information from Sisulu’s Cabinet colleague. Defence Minister Nosiviwe Mapisa-Nqakula said her predecessor took 203 executive-jet flights. In other words, Sisulu blamed a mere oxpecker for ticks and fleas that originated from the ox itself: another sign of a government in disarray.
It is catching. Earlier this month, the South African Democratic Teachers' Union (Sadtu) issued a "stern warning" against civil society groups that have resorted to court action over the Limpopo textbook fiasco. Sadtu, claiming it could resolve this textbook issue, denounced the groups as "imperialist neoliberal forces … used as proxies to pursue certain political agendas". Two weeks later, Sadtu in Limpopo issued a statement expressing doubt that the Department of Basic Education could deliver school textbooks in time for next year.
The champion of this hydra-headed style is Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries Minister Tina Joemat-Pettersson. During the farm unrest in the Western Cape, she sounded like rivals furiously at odds with one another: Joemat the fiery revolutionary versus Pettersson the bungling government functionary.
The strikers had "won", she thundered, because they made the government listen. And the deafest culprit? As minister responsible, herself. So if farm protests reignite next week, will Comrade Joemat chuck rocks at Minister Pettersson?
Above all, no sooner was there a row over whether Zuma had taken a bond on his rural domain than his friend and former funder, Vivian Reddy, rashly declared that Zuma should be commended for choosing Nkandla when he could pick the plushest areas in the country. That boast neatly drew attention to the fact that, at a cost of more than R250m, the president’s homestead, per square metre, probably is the nation’s plushest area.
Along Cape Town’s Atlantic seaboard, you can pick up an ocean-facing mansion with six bedrooms, staff quarters, infinity pool and similar status symbols for R20m. At the Nkandla rate, you could buy 10 of those in Bantry Bay, Camps Bay and any other bay — and still have enough left for a 1,119ha game farm in KwaZulu-Natal plus a brace of helicopters.
No amount of bluster about disrespect, foreign agents or covert agendas can make up for infighting, excess and drift.
It is no way to run a country. It is no way to end inequality.
• Rostron is a freelance journalist and author.