President Jacob Zuma delivers his state of the nation address in Parliament on Thursday.  Picture: GCIS
President Jacob Zuma addresses Parliament. Picture: GCIS

MAKE no mistake, President Jacob Zuma is fighting for his political life.

Jeremy Gauntlett, of all people, may just have saved his bacon, for the moment, in his dramatic concession last week that by ignoring the findings of Public Protector Thuli Madonsela in the matter of the public funds used to upgrade his homestead at Nkandla, Zuma had erred and that the findings were not mere recommendations but rulings that had to be obeyed unless struck down by a court.

The scenes that unfolded in Parliament this week as opposition party leaders savaged Zuma have reminded us to what political depths he has fallen.

Economic Freedom Fighters leader Julius Malema, in particular, has been so personal and cruel and effective in his attacks that National Assembly speaker Baleka Mbete is trying to have his speech on Tuesday expunged from the record. But it is too late.

Hansard is a meagre record, politically, in the face of television and social media. And Mbete has been so slavish in her defence of Zuma that her view carries no moral weight whatsoever.

And as Zuma reminded us all on Thursday in his reply to the response to his state of the nation address last week, he has no choice now but to pretend that all is well in the face of the blinding truth that all is not well.

His state of the nation address promised nothing and made clear that while he may now be paying heed to logic and reason on economic policy, it is not enough. His heart is not in reform.

But over the next few weeks the Constitutional Court must come up with a judgment in the Nkandla matter, brought before it by Malema and joined by the Democratic Alliance and Madonsela herself. Gauntlett, while conceding that the public protector’s rulings are binding, appealed to the court not to push Zuma too far. Do not, he asked, make a declaratory order that the president was in breach of the Constitution and his oath of office by ignoring Madonsela’s finding that he pay back some of the money spent on Nkandla.

That would, in theory, make it easier to pass a vote of no confidence in him and possibly even to try to impeach him.

It isn’t for the court to prescribe to Parliament what to do. But there is no question that the judges of our highest court must indeed declare him in breach of both the Constitution and his oath to protect it. If they don’t, they risk surrendering much of the legitimacy they have gained in the past few weeks by standing up to the executive.

For two years Zuma steadfastly opposed or impeded Madonsela. He allowed and perhaps encouraged his colleagues to ridicule her and insult her and her office. The Constitutional Court will wait a long time for a better moment than the one before it to buttress the Constitution and the law. If it doesn’t do the right thing now, Zuma will shake off the mere embarrassment of his U-turn and the betrayal of his colleagues.

And he would, without any question, imperil the country again. Just because he was prevented from holding on to Des van Rooyen as his finance minister two months ago doesn’t mean the reasons he wanted him in the Treasury in the first place have gone away.

We don’t know what MPs would do with seriously plausible grounds for a no-confidence vote or impeachment. Judging by the debate in Parliament yesterday, the African National Congress majority would do nothing, thus blocking the required two-thirds majority. That may seem an impossible prospect now, but even a week is a long time in politics. A month is a lifetime.

Zuma is rattled and he must be absolutely exhausted. Now is the time to at least give Parliament an opportunity to rid itself of a lousy executive, restore its place as the voice of the people, and put us all out of our misery.

We should not be fooled by Zuma’s apparent conversion to economic common sense. He still insists that firing Nhlanhla Nene was a good and proper thing to do. That is because he seldom has to pay for anything himself.

And the real danger lies ahead. Sure, Finance Minister Pravin Gordhan may well be allowed to deliver a tough budget next week, and some gestures may be made towards making state-owned enterprises more responsible. And Gordhan may even be able to move along the chairwoman of South African Airways (SAA).

But Zuma’s patronage, the very foundations of his politics, rests on the state-owned enterprises remaining under his purview. It is his ability to allow cronies to secure their people on the boards of Eskom and Transnet and a host of others, who then ensure the cronies get the contracts they want, that undergirds his power. He cannot reform without threatening his position.

Worse, the consensus among economists seems to be that whatever Gordhan may promise in his budget, it is now too late to avoid downgrades by the big global ratings agencies. Junk status seems inevitable from at least two of the big three agencies, with the third, Moody’s, breathing down their necks to do the same.

Should that happen later this year, Gordhan will have been in office just long enough for Zuma and his acolytes to be able to blame him and not themselves.

Remember how, after Nene fell, these weasels came out from under the carpet to say that Nene had failed to stop the slide in the rand and that the fall after his firing was merely a continuation of what had been happening when he was in office.

Gordhan may be powerful now, but Zuma doesn’t want him in the Treasury and would move him out in a heartbeat if he felt he could get away with it. He is in the way.

As it is, the higher Gordhan flies now, the harder he may fall. His job is containment.

He cannot, for example, even risk bringing SAA’s accounts to Parliament because this may expose the extent to which it is already bankrupt and trading recklessly and, thus, illegally.

Only Zuma’s departure from the scene might seriously give the markets a new reason to reflect. How that happens we must wait and see. My bet is still ill-health.

Nkandla already needs upgrading, which is what happens when the Department of Public Works builds your house. Perhaps that will be the price of our salvation.

The Constitutional Court judges, as they deliberate what they heard last week, cannot make him go away but they can at the very least give the National Assembly every possible opportunity to save the country.

They must do their duty.