A police inspector holds up the South African flag outside the Gauteng legislature. Picture: THE TIMES

THERE is an old Afrikaans saying that if you throw a stone into the bush and you hear a rustling sound, you know you have disturbed something. So I was intrigued by the swift response from the Presidency to my column two weeks ago, in which I noted that President Jacob Zuma was running well behind the African National Congress (ANC) in opinion polls and would be a liability for his party in this year’s elections.

That tells one the ANC not only knows this to be true but is also worried about it.

If it were not so, a smart public relations staff would have ignored the issue and let it slip quietly into the background. But the petulance of the reply, accusing me of criticising Zuma because I "hate him", was the giveaway.

I have no personal reason to hate Zuma. Our exchanges in the 24 years since he returned from exile have always been quite warm and friendly. But I certainly don’t admire his performance as president of the ANC and the country.

I believe his tenure has been seriously damaging to both — and let me state now that I have been an admirer of the ANC for many years, although I have never been a member because, as a journalist, I believe I should not have a loyal commitment to any party.

The reason for my disaffection has been Zuma’s failure to come clean on the arms deal. Having been closely involved as a journalist with both the Rand Daily Mail and the Washington Post, newspapers that exposed the Watergate and Muldergate scandals that brought down Richard Nixon and Connie Mulder (eventually even John Vorster), I learned that the most fatal thing for any politician is not so much the actual misdemeanour he or she may commit but any subsequent attempts to cover it up.

I wrote scores of articles at the time of the arms deal scandal urging the ANC to reveal all the facts, face the music, whatever it was, and get the issue out of the way as swiftly as possible. Covering it up, I warned, would result in its resurfacing over and over again whenever new facts emerged, causing it to drag on indefinitely until the whole corporate institution became corrupted by the denials, the evasions, the obfuscations, the scapegoating and the lies.

That has been the history of the ANC since Zuma took over.

The sad thing is that I believe the ANC — and Zuma — had a decent case, at least in mitigation of culpability, in accepting kickbacks from the arms deal. Had it presented these arguments at the time, the country may well have accepted them.

At the time of Hendrik Verwoerd’s 1960 banning order, the apartheid government seized all of the ANC’s assets. Its exiles left the country with nothing. For the next 30 years, the liberation movement survived on donations from the Netherlands and the Scandinavian countries, as well as military support from the Soviet Union and its east European satellites.

When then-president FW de Klerk seized the moment presented by the collapse of Soviet communism to unban the ANC and invite its leaders to come home for negotiations, the ANC had nowhere near the financial resources it needed to bring its people home and accommodate them. It had to support them. It had to establish a headquarters and prepare not only for the drawn-out negotiations but also for a national election afterwards.

It needed money.

To whom could it turn? I don’t know the details, but my suspicion is it decided to go to the arms bazaar, where, as everyone knows, the dealers pay kickbacks.

Zuma’s circumstances were particularly difficult. Even when jobs did become available after the 1994 democratic election, he didn’t get a seat in Parliament, which would have given him a decent salary. He was "redeployed" to the KwaZulu-Natal legislature to help quell the civil war raging between the ANC and the Inkatha Freedom Party.

Schabir Shaik, at his trial for corruption over the arms deal, recounted how Zuma had come to him saying he couldn’t cope financially — with his multiple wives and large brood of children to support. According to Shaik, Zuma said he might have to leave politics and find a better-paying job, to which Shaik allegedly responded with a promise to take care of Zuma’s financial affairs.

When Zuma himself was later charged, instead of seizing the opportunity to tell his side of the story, he opted for a cover-up. He embarked on what his leading lawyer aptly called "a Stalingrad strategy" — a series of postponements and appeals seemingly intended to filibuster the issue to death.

It worked legalistically, but not politically. Because we have bred a great culture of investigative journalism here in South Africa. So the facts of that deal have dribbled out in a toxic stream ever since, poisoning Zuma’s reputation.

In the course of that prolonged Stalingrad process, one of the judges involved, Chris Nicholson, made a prophetic observation in the course of dismissing the charges against Zuma on a technicality. Noting that his judgment (which was overturned on appeal) did not amount to an acquittal, Nicholson warned that if the arms deal issues were not cleared up, "a cloud of suspicion" would hang over the man who was about to become president of South Africa.

And so it has. We have seen Zuma manipulate the office of the National Prosecuting Authority, we have heard the dodgy story of the spy tapes and the defiance of a Constitutional Court order for their release, and the questionable dropping of all changes against him.

So the cloud of suspicion has darkened. It darkened particularly with the release of Shaik from his 15-year prison sentence, ostensibly because he was dying.

Well, zombies don’t play golf.

All this has shredded Zuma’s credibility. Books have been written spelling out the details of his involvement in the arms deal. Now we have Nkandlagate and Guptagate. There seems no end to it.

The trouble with corruption is that it is infectious. From nepotism to tenderpreneurship, it has permeated the whole of the ANC. In its election manifesto released the other day, the ANC pledged to make tackling corruption a priority, but how can that carry any credibility when its own leader is under such a cloud?

The ANC is stuck with Zuma until after the election, but once that is over, senior party members who care about their movement and the country should wake up to what an albatross around their necks he has become — and that it is time for him to go. That it is time to appoint a new Number One, hopefully one with sufficient political courage and savvy to recognise that what South Africa really needs to get out of the hole it is in is a government of national unity that can put people of merit, rather than protective buddies and other political acolytes, in all key positions.

Administrative efficiency is what we need, not empty manifesto promises. In the dying days of apartheid, then-Bantu administration minister Piet Koornhof became known as "Piet Promises". Now Zuma has inherited the title.

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TUESDAY’s news that Agang SA and the Democratic Alliance (DA) are to merge, with Agang leader Mamphela Ramphele becoming the DA’s presidential candidate and Helen Zille remaining on the ticket as Western Cape premier, makes eminent sense for both and should give the DA a healthy boost in the election. The fact is that, although Ramphele is a strong individual candidate, Agang had no organisational structure and was making no impact on the opinion polls. With the DA’s excellent organisational structure behind her, Ramphele should now have significantly more impact. It will also help the DA to have a black face instead of a white one heading it on the ballot paper, while the African National Congress will suffer from the liability of having Zuma’s face there.

It is interesting that what is being done now was originally on the cards late last year but, at the last moment, Ramphele pulled out, saying she wished to form her own party and run separately. Now she has apparently realised that was a mistake. They have lost a little time and certainly Ramphele has lost some stature by failing to make any real impact with Agang. But Tuesday’s decision is good for the DA and for the opposition as a whole. It should boost the DA’s vote by several percentage points — certainly more than Agang stood to win on its own.

But the main advantage for the opposition will be in the longer term, as this merger will get the idea of a united opposition under way and improve its overall growth potential.

Sparks is a former editor of the Rand Daily Mail.