Is Jacob Zuma Corrupt or Not? That is the Burning Question
Like a glowing coal, Deputy President Jacob Zuma's campaign to clear his name has been tossed from hand to hand - and every time it is fanned by another rush of air.
Now, just weeks into its first session, South Africa's new Parliament must decide whether to smother this ember before it starts a fire which could raze several reputations and scorch three of the country's most precious institutions - or to let it burn itself out.
At issue are the independence of the director of Public Prosecutions, the Office of the Public Protector and Parliament itself. At stake are their credibility and, to some extent, South Africa's prospects for long-term stability.
For everyone's sake, Parliament needs to bear in mind that the initial spark was the still-unresolved allegation that Zuma accepted favours linked to the arms deal - that he is corrupt.
Zuma complained to Public Protector Lawrence Mushwana last October that Bulelani Ngcuka, the National Director of Public Prosecutions, had abused his office when he said there was reason to suspect the deputy president of corruption linked to the arms deal, but not enough to justify his prosecution.
Last week, Mushwana said in a 100-page report to Parliament that Ngcuka's action had been unfair, improper and had violated Zuma's right to human dignity. He said that Parliament should hold Ngcuka and the National Prosecuting Authority "accountable" for their actions.
On Thursday, Parliament set up a 17-person special committee to consider Mushwana's findings and report back by June 25. The committee will start work this week with 10 ANC members, two from the DA, one from the IFP and four others.
The committee may call Mushwana, Ngcuka or anyone else involved to testify in public or behind closed doors. It can review the evidence the Public Protector used to reach his conclusions and it can recommend parliamentary action including censure. It can also recommend that Parliament does nothing.
Parliament's responsibility is to do the best it can for the nation and not to cut a firebreak that would allow the ANC to escape the heat.
On recent form, the ANC's backroom political committee is most likely to decide what it wants done and to give a narrow mandate to the little-known team it has delegated to serve on the committee.
But there are precedents for a braver approach, including evidence heard in public and dialogue with opposition parties leading to a consensus report that would bear the ANC stamp, but still be acceptable to the opposition.
Without doubt the issue of Ngcuka's statement and Mushwana's report is to a large extent a proxy for the separate battle over Zuma's political future.
"Clearly, this is at least partly a result of the tension within the ANC about the unresolved succession issue," said Wits University's veteran ANC-watcher Tom Lodge.
Judith February of the Institute for Democracy in South Africa's Political Information and Monitoring Service said Parliament could treat the enquiry as merely a legal dispute between institutions with an obligation to protect society. "It is not inappropriate to have these political heavyweights slugging it out in public if it really is about the interpretation of their roles," she said.
But she, too, suspects it has more to do with the ANC succession struggle.
"It's about Jacob Zuma's political future. He can smell the presidency from where he is now and he will use everything at his disposal to clear his name of the allegations against him."
If the report stands, Zuma benefits. Anything that undermines the report undermines Zuma and strengthens the ANC faction that seeks to block his progression to the presidency.
The key question for the opposition is this: How can the opposition use this special committee to ensure maximum exposure around the underlying allegation against the deputy president and, at the same time, shore up the reputations of the offices of the protector and the prosecutor and of Parliament itself?
"This is a perfect opportunity to start rebuilding the reputation and the independence of Parliament," says Independent Democrats leader Patricia de Lille.
If the DA resorts to fight-back mode, it will use the committee as a forum to savage the ANC with little thought to the collateral damage it inflicts on Parliament or anyone else.
But if the signs of a more constructive DA are accurate, this will be a good opportunity to lay the foundations of a new political strategy.
The ANC faces a similar challenge. It can opt for short-term damage control or longer-term reconstruction. The difference will lie in the level of transparency and independence it allows to the committee.
A sober and objective assessment of the Public Protector's report and a reasonable review of the foundations of his findings would be a service to the offices of the protector and the prosecutor and to Parliament.
If Mushwana or Ngcuka have sought or been used to advance a political career or agenda, that must be allowed to emerge. The committee should not be used to hide even prima facie evidence of political or financial corruption.
"The big issue is whether Jacob Zuma is corrupt or not. Everything else is secondary," said Lodge.
If necessary, the fire must be allowed to rage and burn itself out.
With acknowledgements to Brendan Boyle and the Sunday Times.