Publication: Business Day Date: 2004-10-29 Reporter: Tim Cohen Reporter:

Lesson in Politics, if Not Morality, as Zuma Sticks to his Guns



Business Day

Date 2004-10-29


Tim Cohen

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Over the past few weeks I have been repeatedly asked a deceptively simple question: why has Deputy President Jacob Zuma not stood down?

This is not the same as asking whether he was complicit in the bribery charges that have attracted so much press recently. He is not charged in the trial of Durban businessman Schabir Shaik, so his legal complicity is not really up for discussion. We presume he is innocent, as is his right and our obligation.

It is also an issue separate from the succession race within the African National Congress. Let's work on the basis that he is a natural for the post of president, and would do it well.

The question is this: if any politician faced the uncontested evidence presented at the Shaik trial so far, would it not be incumbent on them to resign, or stand aside, or at least show some form of contrition?

Consider the alternatives. He could try to explain how he ended up in such a financial mess. He could say he was an idiot to trust Shaik. He could apologise. God knows, he would be forgiven.

But Zuma has not chosen this approach. In fact, his responses to the crisis have been disingenuous at best, and mendacious at worst. He told Parliament, for example, he did not meet French arms dealer Alain Thetard and Shaik on March 11 2000 in Durban or elsewhere. He went on to say that he might have met Thetard as part of a group somewhere or other.

One of the interesting aspects of the Shaik trial so far is that the defence team has acknowledged that the trio did meet, personally and privately, not on the 11th but on the 10th. Well, that makes a big difference, doesn't it?

The responsibility for this evasiveness is Zuma's alone. It has nothing to do with Shaik or getting re-established in SA or even with his financial situation. It's just about him and his trustworthiness.

Politicians around the world are used to a life of fickle chance, rollercoaster fortunes and blustering through crises. Even on the worst scenario, I'm not sure Zuma has done anything as bad as Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi was accused of doing. There was certainly massively less money involved. The "Zuma issue" is about him, but it is also about the nature of politics.

Personally, I fancy I know something about politics because I was a politician for a short while. For a single, glorious year in the early '80s, I represented the august student body of the University of Natal, bless them, on a body laughingly known as the Students Representative Council (SRC). The experience was, shall we say, special.

Universities are about education, and in the short space of time I managed to learn every underhand trick in politics. Trick No 1: rig the vote. If you were an anti-apartheid student on a campus that was in those days, more or less, racially divided, getting into office required, er, ingenuity.

It required, for example, placing as few ballot boxes near the engineering faculty as possible, and several hundred near the social science faculty.

I remember a "Rhodesian" student (a character, not geographic type), who stayed in the notoriously conservative campus residences , saying the problem with the SRC was that it did not appear to represent the people living in the residences.

In a rare moment of honesty I told him that if we did represent them, they might be inclined to vote.

Hence, political trick No 2: demoralise your opponents. Achieve this, and you have won.

The third political lesson was the rather sad fact that the job of representing students was actually quite dull. We ineffectually examined textbook prices. We organised lift schemes. We sat in meetings. We passed resolutions. It was all tedious.

That was until we almost got kicked out of office. The issue was whether students should oppose a forthcoming rebel English cricket tour in contravention of the sports boycott.

The student body, it seemed, was quite happy to ignore our political posing. But sport, now there was hallowed ground on which only the fearless dared tread. I still owe Ketso Gordhan, now an executive director at Rand Merchant Bank, my life after he saved me from a horde of chair-wielding Rhodesians who attacked me at a raucous student meeting for wearing a "no fair play in unfair society" or some such badge.

The student body voted against the SRC's anticricket tour motion at that meeting, but we declined to stand down on the considered basis that we were, well, right.

This absurd microcosm is a remarkably accurate reflection of politics as a whole. Sailing close to the wind and travelling around the country where we could flirt with other students was fun. Actually representing students was really dull.

Think of the vote-rigging that goes on everywhere. Even in the US, constituency gerrymandering has rendered the vast majority of senate and congress seats incontestable for one party or the other. As far as travelling is concerned, think of the vast amounts politicians spend on jets.

And as for blustering obliviously through it, think of Zuma.

Cohen is editor at large.

With acknowledgements to Tim Cohen and the Business Day.