Struggle for the Soul of South Africa: Justice, Politics and the Jailing of President Jacob Zuma

It has been a long wait for South Africans who have been watching a “political movie”, with former President Jacob Zuma playing the lead role. No matter the outcome, this development is a tribute to South Africa’s judiciary and democracy that a former President and freedom fighter has been imprisoned for trying to evade accountability over questionable issues during his tenure in office.

His supporters had formed a human chain around him to protect him from being arrested. Zuma himself claimed that serving time in prison was likened to a death sentence, given his age (79) and health condition, not to mention increased exposure to COVID-19.

However, that Wednesday night, he left his home to turn himself over to authorities to serve his 15-month jail sentence for contempt of court. He was admitted to the Estcourt Correctional Centre in his home province of KwaZulu-Natal.

This move brought about more than a spontaneous triggering of anger which made many analysts say that there is a “third force” sympathetic to the former President at play.

The government’s language too changed significantly, from not saying much in the early days of the lawlessness to calling out what it says has been “economic sabotage”. Some commentators have even gone as far as to warn that the unrest has the hallmarks of an “attempted coup” and an “insurrection”.

For instance, President Cyril Ramaphosa had said that the violence was pre-planned, but did not mention the suspects behind it.

Also, Ferial Haffajee, associate editor of the Daily Maverick, has written about a coordinated strategy of chaos, masterminded by a dozen close associates of the former president.

Referencing many senior sources from inside the ruling African National Congress (ANC) and intelligence services, Haffajee has sketched an outline of that strategy – from the burning of transport trucks in KwaZulu-Natal seen in the early days of the insurrection, to the blocking of key routes from the port in Durban to the economic heart of South Africa, Gauteng.

The suggestion is this was intended to further undermine and weaken an already fragile economy and by extension, Mr. Ramaphosa’s government.

This could be coming from within both the ruling party and the country’s intelligence services.
There are two clear and opposing forces in the ANC. One is headed by President Ramaphosa, who his supporters say is slowly rebuilding state institutions and accountability after a decade of corruption and looting during the Zuma administration.

The other, known as the RET faction, is sympathetic and fiercely loyal to the former President. They were perhaps beneficiaries of this “state capture” and feel cornered by the momentum gained by the Ramaphosa faction. They want a change of guard, urgently, and so stand to benefit if the current President is weakened.

Zuma was the spymaster of the ANC inside and outside of South Africa during the years of white-minority rule, before returning triumphantly in 1990. Almost four years since leaving office, he is believed to have maintained staunch allies in the intelligence services.

He was imprisoned for 10 years in 1963 for fighting the racist system of apartheid in South Africa. He went into exile in 1975 to become the spymaster of the African National Congress (ANC), before returning in 1990. He rose to the presidency in 2009, though by then his reputation had been stained by a deluge of corruption allegations.

He had also been charged with the rape of a family friend but was acquitted in 2006 in a trial that deeply polarised the ANC, the former liberation movement which became the governing party in 1994, and of which Zuma has been a member since the age of 17.

Earlier this month, the judges of the Constitutional Court sentenced him to 15 months in prison for ignoring an order to appear before an official inquiry investigating the corruption allegations he faced during his nine-year presidency – especially his relationship with the notorious Gupta brothers who fled South Africa in 2018 as the legal noose closed in on them.

They have all denied the allegations and Zuma insists that his political enemies are using the courts to target him.

Having fought racial oppression in South Africa at the height of the Cold War between the US and the now-defunct Soviet Union, Zuma is still steeped in this mentality, casting himself as the victim of a political conspiracy hatched by Western powers and their “puppets” in South Africa, to thwart his attempts at ending the economic power of white people in the country.

For his critics, the freedom fighter from a poor rural family became intoxicated with power once the liberation struggle was won and, along with his new business friends, looted the state’s wealth on a grand scale.

Where the truth lies is yet to be established, but it is a tribute to South Africa’s 27-year-democracy that a former President and freedom fighter has been imprisoned for trying to evade accountability over his time in office.

It shows that South Africa’s democratic institutions – often battered by politicians – remain strong, and judges, policemen, and government officials are still prepared to uphold the rule of law by jailing a man whom some of them personally know and with whom they were once with in the trenches of the liberation struggle.

Moreover, judges have been scrupulously fair towards Zuma, giving him a hearing at every opportunity, as he waged in the courts what became known as the ‘Stalingrad Strategy’ – fighting point-by-point every attempt to put him on trial for his alleged high crimes.

Analysts are of the view that Zuma’s case should be a lesson for African leaders, in a continent where corruption is endemic and has become part of everyday routine. This is no longer news, but what may be news, however, to the international communities and Africa is that the evil of corruption has been completely wiped out in Africa and has become history. However, Africa is still on the long route towards that path.

According to a report, “As long as corruption continues to go largely unchecked, democracy is under threat around the world because corruption chips away at democracy to produce a vicious cycle, where corruption undermines democratic institutions. Weak institutions are less able to control corruption over and above this, with many democratic institutions under threat across the globe – often by leaders with authoritarian or populist tendencies. Africa needs to do more to strengthen checks and balances and protect citizens’ rights.”

The major and principal challenge confronting the African continent is the need to develop and sustain positive socio-economic results, which may lead to structural transformation processes.

To achieve structural transformation in Africa, three vital requisites are important: first, is good governance, which is extremely important; second, is that decision-making processes should be implemented by African leaders; and third, Africa needs to keep up with running a great administration and maintain a strong judiciary. 

Above all, Zuma’s sentence should be an eye-opener to African leaders. The lesson is, no matter how long a politician manipulates his or her ways with corruption, a day of reckoning will surely come.

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