President Jacob Zuma, Nelson Mandela's ex-wife Winnie Madikizela-Mandela (left) and Mandela’s widow Graca Machel (right) attend Mandela's funeral ceremony in Qunu on Sunday. Picture: REUTERS
President Jacob Zuma, Nelson Mandela's ex-wife Winnie Madikizela-Mandela (left) and Mandela’s widow Graca Machel (right) attend Mandela's funeral ceremony in Qunu. Picture: REUTERS

AS PART of that familiar quarterly exercise, one that resembles ceremony more than any serious commitment to accountability, President Jacob Zuma this week took to the parliamentary podium to once again answer oral questions.

President’s question time is essentially a game. The rules are simple enough: the president must, with the assistance of the speaker and a supine ANC caucus, avoid at all costs a forthright answer to any question posed.

There are exceptions. Should the question come from the ANC benches, for example, and therefore be designed to facilitate some scripted waffle about the ostensible success of one government policy or another, the president may be more direct; but even then, only generically. Specificity is outlawed.

It’s kind of like the lottery. The public (the opposition too) holds out for that one-in-a-billion chance the president will actually answer a question — whether by chance or design, they don’t really care. It is the novelty of the possibility that captures the imagination, only for their hopes to be repeatedly dashed. And yet everyone, it would seem, keeps buying tickets.

Zuma plays the game well and without shame. The lack of shame or contrition is important to winning. It allows for a certain amount of disdain, not just towards the exercise as a whole but to any attempt by the opposition to seek out an explanation. In turn, all the obfuscation, contradiction and, well, just plain nonsense, is imbued with self-confidence. Some may say arrogance.

It all lends itself to an air of ignorant condescension, and Zuma breathes it in as fast as he exhales the stuff.

What would South African democracy be without these sorts of empty gestures? Ceremony rather than substance holds so much of our democracy together. The state of the nation address is about as informative or incisive as a telephone directory. Budget debates resemble debates like shepherd’s pie is made out of actual shepherds, and question time generates answers like the talking clock holds good conversation.

They are all games of a sort. But really, they are all we have. They and so much more have had the life wrenched out of them. Hollowed out in this way, Parliament operates more on hope than expectation.

The EFF’s response has been to abandon the game altogether. The system is rigged, it says. The DA puts on a brave face. It has to really. If it conceded Parliament is a complete joke, the joke would be on it as much as the ANC, because it keeps waiting for the punch line to the same gag.

And then there is the ANC, a party so fundamentally trapped in the delusional universe it has created it thinks things have never been better.

You wonder what the ANC chief whip makes of prime minister’s question time in the UK’s House of Commons. It must be like watching a foreign film without subtitles. What is this dark magic? Point and counterpoint, barb and retort, fact and counter-factualism. My god, if the ANC ever found itself in a situation where it actually had to think on its feet its much-vaunted collective hive mind would explode. Or implode. Long story short: it would be messy.

Questions to the president have to be submitted two weeks beforehand. All oral questions have to be submitted an age before they are actually answered. From an opposition perspective, it’s a bit like charging at the enemy from a kilometre away with a large icicle. By the time you actually get to them, panting and breathless, you discover your weapon has melted away some time ago.

Not that question time should be treated as a kind of "gotcha session". But spontaneity does lend itself to honesty. Certainly it is far more revealing. And both of those serve accountability more than anything else.

DA MP David Maynier made the point this week, when, in response to an inane summation of the government’s nine-point economic plan from the president, he asked Zuma what the nine points actually were. Zuma was clueless. It wasn’t in the script so he didn’t know. And that’s Zuma for you. He is essentially a human Teleprompter.

The president has developed a number of personal tricks to help him pass the time at the podium. There is the infamous chuckle, of course, which is his way of saying, true to his name, "get stuffed", with a smile and a shuffle. There is the platitudinous waffle, which is his way of inducing sleep. And then there are the many and various kinds of mud he throws into the water — his way of making a farce out of the question in the first place.

Here’s a wonderful illustration: Asked in August 2014 about the appointment of the new director of public prosecutions, and whether there was a potential conflict of interest in appointing someone who might well have to investigate the president, Zuma responded: "Your question is not a question." And that, so far as he was concerned, was that. Which pretty much says it all, lovingly facilitated by the speaker.

But all of this, the obfuscation and disdain alike, is best summarised as contempt. It requires absolute self-confidence to pull off. Show a little weakness, reveal that the criticisms hit home, and the game is up. On this front, the arrogant façade on which Zuma relies so heavily has developed a few cracks recently.

"Each time when I come here, I am abused by members of your house. Instead of answering questions, I sit here being called a criminal, a thief," he complained this week. Post election, a reportedly irritated Zuma said in response to repeated accusations he was a vote-losing liability, "How can a member of the ANC be referred to as a liability.… No member can be a liability."

​ These, along with a few other similar intimations, suggest even Zuma’s seemingly impregnable self-confidence is cracking under the relentless assault on his character. Even he bleeds.

Not that anyone cares about his feelings. That’s the kind of response one generates when all you exude is contempt. The general sentiment would seem to be, let him bleed.

He is a curious fellow is the president. The amount of umbrage he takes at satire, from paintings to cartoons, is extraordinary. Often he heads straight to court for relief, wounded and hurt. But when it comes to best democratic practice, it has taken seven years and three elections for him to show even the smallest sign that all that criticism actually means anything to him.

But there it is. He is hurting.

Of course, the natural response, or at least a more logical one, would be to provide some kind of alternative: the case for his democratic credentials. But in politics it is asking for trouble to blow your own trumpet and, as the debate on the motion of no-confidence in the president showed, he is running out of people able to blow that trumpet on his behalf.

Former president Thabo Mbeki had no end of praise singers. The Presidency went so far as to facilitate a R1m loan from Absa bank for a hagiography on him. And in the columns section of newspapers, he had a relative army of pseudo-intellectuals who would churn out column inches defending him and his genius.

One of the prices Zuma has paid for his particular brand of brutal patronage, which has at its heart personal loyalty or reciprocity rather than any allusion to a common vision or idea, is that it is not just Parliament he has hollowed out but the ANC, too. Sure, he has his fair share of acolytes, but they are unable to offer him any intellectual cover. It’s the banal leading the inane out there.

They say as you head towards the outer edge of a black hole time slows down, and when you die each individual atom in your body explodes, one by one. Only it will take an eternity. The ANC seems to be on a similar trajectory. Death by slow motion. You can be sure of only one thing — it is heading into its own particular black hole headfirst.

Zuma better man up and strap on another layer of arrogance. Now is not the time to be showing any weakness. Oblivion calls.