President Jacob Zuma. Picture: SUNDAY TIMES
President Jacob Zuma. Picture: SUNDAY TIMES

WHEN Judge Chris Nicholson threw out the corruption charges against President Jacob Zuma on procedural grounds four years ago — only to have a full bench of the Supreme Court of Appeal scathingly overturn him soon afterwards — he warned prophetically that unless the arms deal was fully investigated and ventilated, "a cloud of suspicion and scandal" would continue to hang over the government.

That little white cloud has now billowed into a dark and thunderous cumulonimbus. On Saturday night, journalists and lawyers were back in court as the National Prosecuting Authority (NPA) made a desperate last-minute bid to stop the presses rolling out the Sunday Times’s latest expose of leaked documents, which threw further light on former acting National Prosecuting Authority boss Mokotedi Mpshe’s controversial decision to drop the case against Zuma.

And so the arms deal scandal lives on, 13 years after the deal itself was signed in November 1999 and seven years after Zuma first appeared in court after the conviction of Schabir Shaik, his financial manager at the time.

It is also nine years since I wrote the first of many columns warning that if the full details of the scandal were not cleared up swiftly, it would become a continuing saga that "threatens to tear the government, the country and some of our most important institutions apart", which indeed it has and will continue to do.

Citing the Watergate scandal that brought down US president Richard Nixon, I noted, too, that in such cases it was the cover-up that turned out to be more damaging than the scandal itself.

Now we appear to have entered a second generation, as it were, of this kind of political folly, with the weekend court action amounting to an attempt to cover up the original cover-up of secretly taped conversations, the so-called "spy tapes" that supposedly provided the grounds for withdrawing the charges. The court action failed, so now we know that in withdrawing the charges against Zuma, Mpshe acted against the overwhelming advice of the top prosecutors involved in the case.

The question is, why? And is that decision now challengeable?

Meanwhile, Zuma’s lawyers are in default of a court order to hand over the actual tapes that led to that decision, which compounds the issue and darkens the cloud of suspicion even further.

What is it that they are so anxious to hide? Who did the secret taping? Was it legally done? And was it legal to hand the tapes over to Zuma’s lawyers for them to use to get him off the hook?

I also wrote, when Zuma became president in 2009, that he would go naked into the world as the leader of our country — naked in the sense that he would have trouble ever defending himself against accusations of malfeasance. Because to sue anyone for libel or slander would require him to enter a witness box and face cross-examination under oath by skilled lawyers who would question him relentlessly about his role in the arms deal to establish how much of a character he had to defame.

It is something to which I suggested he would probably not want to subject himself.

I thought of that column again the other day when, at the last moment, Zuma dropped his libel action against Zapiro, the cartoonist — offering some unsuspected sensitivity to possibly harming free speech as his reason.

Now Zuma is grappling with the even more daunting issue of accounting for the public money spent on upgrading his private home, or compound, at Nkandla.

The two cases are in fact connected: the original charge sheet included the cost of building Nkandla among the many perks Zuma received during his 10-year relationship with Shaik.

That charge sheet accused Zuma of receiving 783 payments totalling R4,072,499.85 from Shaik between 1995 and 2005 — a piffling sum compared with the about R250m of public money being spent on upgrading the security features at Nkandla.

All of which, of course, makes the funding of Nkandla even more intriguing.

If the original building costs came out of the stream of money that allegedly reached Zuma from his crooked financial manager, why then did he still need a bond, which he says he is paying off but which City Press’s investigative reporters say doesn’t exist?

So what kind of bond is this? A loan from another friend or benefactor perhaps?

Zuma has also been reported as saying his family paid for the building of Nkandla and that the R158m of public money being spent on the property is only for security upgrades, including bulletproof glass, a bunker with an elevator and houses for security guards outside the complex.

So how much was paid by Shaik, if anything, how much by the family, and how big is the bond, or loan, or whatever it is?

Why is there such a staggering difference between building costs and the cost of security upgrades? And why such extravagant security? Not even the loathed Ou Krokodil, PW Botha, had a bunker.

Zuma says he can’t account for these puzzling figures because he is not a bookkeeper, and presenting Parliament with a breakdown of the costs is not his job.

But accounting for the expenditure of public money on private property is somebody’s job — somebody in the government, of which Zuma is the head.

I think it was US president Harry Truman who said, pointing to his desk, that when it came to government accountability, "the buck stops here".

So I’m afraid, President Zuma, that in this whole horribly entangled mess of your lavish public and private expenditures, the buck does stop right there, on your desk.

You may not be a bookkeeper but you are accountable for explaining the mess to the taxpaying public, a lot of whose hard-earned money is involved.

Even if that requires hiring a bookkeeper to disentangle it for you.

Meanwhile, that dark cloud is growing darker and heavier.

My own suspicion is that our president has become so confused by the multitude of scandals and explanations and cover-ups of cover-ups that he genuinely doesn’t know what is going on.

I think it was probably exasperation at this damn buck that just won’t go away that brought him close to tears in Parliament the other day, rather that outrage at people suggesting he is corrupt.

To be fair, there is still the fact that Zuma has agreed to the appointment of a commission of inquiry into the arms deal.

It was patently obvious, though, that he did so to ward off moves by the tenacious Terry Crawford-Browne to have the Constitutional Court order such an investigation into the arms deal.

However, the pace at which the commission is moving at the moment makes it questionable whether it will complete its work in Zuma’s lifetime.

Packaging all this stuff together gives one cause to ponder the fact that Zuma, with all his problems and cover-ups, is going to be with us for another seven years.

And what the African National Congress needs to realise is that, by sticking to Zuma so tenaciously, it is making all those issues its own. Zuma comes as a long-term package of many problems.

• Sparks is a veteran journalist and political analyst.