Jacob Zuma’s long-anticipated, reluctant appearance before the Commission of Inquiry into State Capture was visibly an ordeal for him.
It was also agonising for those condemned to having to endure the slow torture of “Number One’s” tediously evasive and unconvincing answers to questions put to him. Not since the days of Richard Nixon’s tenure as the sleaziest US president yet has there been such an unedifying performance of a shifty-eyed politician wilting under television’s merciless focus.
Many will remember that Nixon was narrowly defeated in the 1960 election by John F Kennedy, following a series of pivotal debates, the first to be televised. Those who had heard the two on radio found Nixon more convincing. Those who watched had the opposite opinion, with Kennedy easily prevailing over the apparently sullen, shifty Nixon.
The watchers were proved right – the man dubbed “Tricky Dicky” for his ability to squirm and sidestep, went on to lie, steal, harass opponents and betray the US constitution. He resigned in disgrace during his second term, when impeachment became inevitable.
The intense scrutiny provided by Judge Raymond Zondo’s televised hearings leaves one with a similarly unflattering picture of Zuma. And when one considers the obvious career parallels, there’s only one conclusion: “Sneaky Jake” is the southern hemisphere’s trans-race reincarnation of Tricky Dicky.
Zuma started the hearings apparently eager to throw down the gauntlet to those who had crossed him. Former Cabinet minister Ngoako Ramatlhodi was first in the sights.
Ramatlhodi, said Zuma, was a spy dating back to the apartheid years, acting on the instructions of unnamed foreign masters to discredit him. So, too, was Siphiwe Nyanda, the former head of the military.
There were many conspiracies against him, Zuma said. At least two foreign agencies and one local one had been trying over 30 years to tarnish his reputation. Recently, suicide bombers had been sent to kill him during a concert, but he had foiled the attempt by not attending.
By the second day, the belligerence had faded under the flow of unemotional but probing questions on allegations made by others who had testified before Zondo. Zuma picked his way through evidence leader Paul Pretorius’s questions as if lost and blindfolded in a minefield.
He appeared physically uncomfortable and could virtually not utter a sentence without hesitating or clearing his throat. Sadly, Zuma seems to have been afflicted by the same neurological decline that has attacked many who have had to give evidence under oath: “I can’t remember … I don’t remember … I’m not sure … I don’t know”, was the refrain.
When he did answer, Zuma’s replies were convoluted and confusing. Sometimes, he would roll his eyes back into his head until only the whites were showing, as if he were desperately hoping to find a credible answer scribbled, like a crib note, on the inside of his cranium.
By Wednesday, however, the intellectual sludge had become unbearable. It was a relief when his counsel stood up to object to the “poor line” that the “unfair” proceedings were taking. Sneaky Jake was sliding towards the exit.