This newspaper’s previous edition predicted a week from hell for President Jacob Zuma. Which is exactly how it panned out.
What we did not do was predict a similar week for National Assembly Speaker Baleka Mbete, whose week actually turned out worse than that of our dearly beloved president.
If there was a week this aspirant president of the republic would want to erase from history, it would be this one. Not the sharpest of political minds, Mbete – as usual – lurched from one self-made predicament to the next.
Tuesday’s debacle at the Constitutional Court was one such self-made problem. Mbete, who doubles as national chairperson of the ANC, has spent the first 20 months or so of her second stint as Speaker doing everything in her power to protect her party president from accountability for his role in the Nkandla scandal.
She flouted rules she should have been the custodian of; she took short cuts on procedure; she exhibited open bias; she misread the law; and ultimately, she placed her party position above her constitutional role.
Poor Lindi Nkosi-Thomas, the advocate who will forever be remembered as “Mbete’s bumbling lawyer”, had no case to fight when she walked into court on Tuesday. Even the late Johnnie Cochran could not have rescued Mbete.
The bottom line is, Nkandla is one of the greatest daylight robberies in democratic South Africa, and the president’s fingerprints are all over the crime scene.
To cover up evidence, Mbete was prepared to use Parliament to further commit the “crime” of shooting a constitutional body in the kneecaps.
The tactics Mbete and the ANC’s parliamentary management used to clean up after their don were amateurish and insulting to the intelligence of ordinary South Africans.
How they were so confident they could get away with such an obvious cover-up in a robust, open, constitutional democracy like ours defies logic.
They were always going to be caught out and, as we learnt from Watergate and other epic scandals, the cover-up is often more damaging than the actual crime.
However, it would be hard to imagine anything more damaging to one’s standing than the need to spend R246 million on thatched rondavels and a blue pond in a remote village. (I know some will blame some poor Makhanya architect – no relation! – for this, but let’s leave that for another day.)
After Tuesday’s humiliation, Mbete came to Parliament on Thursday ready for a fight. The Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) had made no bones about the fact that they would be picking up from where they had left off last year in terms of giving the president hell and, in the process, frustrating the hell out of the presiding officers.
Having had nearly two years of practice in dealing with the EFF’s disruptions, Mbete and the ANC should by now have refined their tactics. No such luck.
The red berets always seem to be five steps ahead and, what’s more, they know exactly where and how to needle Mbete to get that high-pitched Oscar Pistorius scream out of her.
She complied with the needling and behaved as irrationally as she has since being sworn into the position in May 2014.
She played into every line of the EFF’s script, buying them airtime and guaranteeing them dominance on social media and in the next day’s newspapers.
When the EFF left the House, the ANC clapped its good riddance. Mbete and National Council of Provinces chairperson Thandi Modise were visibly relieved. But they knew this was not a victory. Julius Malema and his troops would be back next week to torment them and the president, and they still would have no answers to the questions.
If truth be told, Mbete is as much to blame for the destruction of Parliament’s decorum as the red brigade. She has been an appalling Speaker, worse than she was during her first stint between 2004 and 2009. Her term has been as inglorious as the presidency of the man she is trying to protect.
Her weakness is not that she is a leader of the ANC. Other senior ANC members, such as Frene Ginwala and Max Sisulu, performed the job excellently while serving on the ANC’s national executive committee.
They knew when not to put on their party hat.
They did from time to time subtly err on the side of their party, but that happens in all democracies. It is why the majority party picks the Speaker.
But with Mbete, the bias is as blatant as some referees who favoured the black-and-gold team from Phefeni in the 1980s.
The irony of it all is that Mbete’s determined efforts to tie a rope around her neck are actually about writing a CV for the presidency of the party and the republic.
She still believes, as does the blind Zimbabwean beggar at the corner of Jan Smuts and Jellicoe in Johannesburg, that she has a shot at the presidency.
So she goes out of her way to prove herself “a loyal and disciplined cadre of the glorious movement” – in the process tying the noose ever tighter around her neck.
With more compromising performances like the ones of the past two years, Mbete should be lowering her ambitions.
But then one just has to look at the calibre of person she will be replacing if she gets the job to realise why she thinks she has a shot.