Police Minister Nathi Nhleko, left, addresses Parliament’s ad hoc committee on Nkandla on Wednesday as Public Works Minister Thulas Nxesi looks on. Picture: TREVOR SAMSON
Police Minister Nathi Nhleko, left, addresses Parliament’s ad hoc committee on Nkandla last year as Public Works Minister Thulas Nxesi looks on. Picture: TREVOR SAMSON

A QUOTE used more than once over the years in columns by former Business Day editor Peter Bruce comes to mind as I look at the recent developments in the Nkandla scandal. "You’re so crooked, Dickie, that if you swallowed a nail you’d s**t a corkscrew," Field Marshal Gerald Templer once said in a moment of exasperation after Earl Mountbatten of Burma, the last Viceroy of India, had behaved particularly badly.

This statement is the perfect description of the actions of two South African Cabinet ministers, Nathi Nhleko (police) and Thulas Nxesi (public works). They allowed themselves to be abused by President Jacob Zuma, who after years of denials has finally agreed to pay back some money for the Nkandla upgrades. Both men also fit the Comical Ali tag perfectly — their capacity to produce propaganda is at the low level of Mohammed Saeed al-Sahhaf, who became known as Comical Ali for the manner in which he defended and spun for Saddam Hussein, even after the Iraqi despot had given up and gone into hiding.

There are many Comical Alis in our Parliament, including Mathole Motshekga and Cedric Frolick, the senior MPs at the forefront of the attempts to stonewall and protect Zuma, a monumental waste of time. They are ambitious career and Johnny-come-lately politicians in the African National Congress (ANC), always eager to please the boss, even at the expense of the liberation movement itself.

Frolick, who is actually not a bad legislator, is a former United Democratic Movement MP who crossed the floor in the early 2000s when it was still possible to change your colours without losing your seat.

The Zuma-Nkandla obstruction was in some ways similar to how Parliament, under Thabo Mbeki, was abused to quash debate on the "arms deal" and other scandals. Back then, good men and women were crushed and systems were subverted by previously perfectly respectable men — the Steve Tshwetes, Mluleki Georges and Mosiuoa Lekotas of this world. The trio portrayed themselves as Mbeki’s guard dogs, and they mauled whatever looked vaguely like an opponent trying to get at their man. Controversial as it was, the difference with the arms deal was that it was not about one man benefiting unduly, as is the case with Nkandla, but about the ANC trying to quash a broader government scandal that tainted many people and the party itself.

The Nxesis and Nhlekos are modern-day stooges who have engraved their own names in the history books as foolish men who sacrificed their principles to protect a man who has proved over and over again that he sees himself as bigger than even the ANC, and whose selfish interests are more important than those of the country itself.

But the real reason the ANC has over successive administrations given us unprincipled ministers who are unable to protect the ANC’s own interests, let alone SA’s, is that the party has degenerated into a morally bereft and intellectually weak personality cult from which average, sycophantic politicians can rise to Cabinet level.

As the Zuma cult unravels, it is worth looking back at how it started, with the man himself unable to shake off the image that he was a crook despite arranging that pending criminal charges he faced be dropped.

A BBC journalist once asked if he was a crook and he bought time by asking for a definition of the word. The interviewer followed with a blunt description: "It’s somebody who takes money from others for corrupt purposes."

One of the ironies of the situation is that it has allowed demagogues such as Julius Malema to portray themselves as pro-democracy crusaders and protectors of the Constitution, an indication of just how far the ANC has drifted from the moral and intellectual centre. But then, it takes a crook to catch one.

Mkokeli is associate editor.