The decision by South Africa’s top court to send former president Jacob Zuma to jail – albeit for an initial term of only 15 months – marks a significant milestone in the life of the fragile post-apartheid democracy. It signifies both the courage of the judiciary in the face of threats from Zuma’s supporter base and the determination of his successor and former fellow freedom fighter Cyril Ramaphosa to clamp down on corruption.
The prison sentence was imposed on Zuma for contempt of court after he defied an order to attend an inquiry into allegations of corruption under his presidency. He is expected to surrender to police near his home in Nkandla in rural Kwazulu-Natal this weekend, but if he doesn’t, an arrest warrant will be issued.
Zuma knows all about life in prison. He spent 10 years on notorious Robben Island near Cape Town, breaking rocks for hour after hour, day after day, with fellow African National Congress member fighters like Nelson Mandela. All had been shipped to the remote island for their attempts to overthrow the apartheid regime of Hendrik Verwoerd.
Six decades later, now aged 79 and having served as the fourth democratically elected president of South Africa, Zuma has been playing a cat-and-mouse game with his former fellow revolutionaries to avoid being locked up again.
The Commission’s Chair, Deputy Chief Justice Raymond Zondo, now says he is seeking an order from the Constitutional Court, the country’s highest court, that would “impose a term of imprisonment on Mr Zuma”. In its Heads of Argument to the Constitutional Court, the Commission said that the former president’s “public defiance” amounted to contempt of court, saying the court “appears calculated to undermine public trust in the judiciary and the administration of justice as a whole”.
The allegations of Zuma’s involvement in major corruption are detailed, extensive and serious. He denies them but refuses to appear before the Commission to discuss them. Instead, he has accused the judge of a personal vendetta against him. Ironically it was Zuma, when president, who set up a commission to investigate corruption in state-owned enterprises and government departments.
Finding Zuma guilty of contempt, the Constitutional Court agreed:
“Never before has the judicial process been so threatened”, it concluded, the result of “a series of direct assaults and calculated and insidious efforts by Zuma to corrode its legitimate authority.”
The three-year-old Commission had a wide brief and interviewed dozens of witnesses. But its activities and moves against Zuma split the ruling African National Congress party, miring its leadership in a miasma of division and conflict. The turmoil has affected the whole country as it struggles with the coronavirus pandemic, violence and social issues, and concerns over its perceived role as the African continent’s most important economic powerhouse.
Zuma’s day of reckoning has been a long time coming. His problems can be traced back to the early days of South Africa’s democracy. A Zulu by tribal origin, with no formal education, he spent his early years in Kwazulu Natal, mostly in townships around the eastern city of Durban. When released from Robben Island, he was active as an ANC intelligence operative and member of the South African Communist Party before joining other anti-apartheid activists in exile in Mozambique and, later, at ANC headquarters in Lusaka, Zambia.
After the creation of the ‘new’ South Africa following the country’s first free elections, Zuma occupied various roles, initially in his home state, but rising to be elected as deputy president of the ANC, and then executive deputy president of South Africa in 1999.
By the time he became president, formal charges of corruption were piling up. They threatened not only to destroy Zuma’s career but also the new South Africa itself. It was at this point that officials began to refer to this brand of ultra-corruption as ‘state capture’. Zuma was linked to corruption so vast but it destroyed entire institutions, prised open state budgets and severely damaged the criminal justice system. Three years ago, Zuma was pushed out of office.
Facing such charges, it might be expected that the former president would have entered a plea of ‘not guilty’ and reserved his defence. Not so. Like the celebrity he undoubtedly is, he continues in an extraordinary act of defiance, spending most of his time at home in KwaZulu Natal, in a grand residence overlooking the Indian Ocean, supported by friends, followers and a battalion of lawyers.
Sounds familiar? Yes, there are some similarities between two big bruisers who became presidents: the former reality TV host Donald Trump, serial tweeter of falsehoods, who now lurks in Mar a Lago, Florida, perpetuating the lie that last November’s election was stolen, and Zuma, the former freedom fighter, who rails against what he claims is a vast shifting conspiracy against him, led by Western capitalists. He blames spies, judges, Western imperialists, white people, black people, constitutionalists, corporations and more.
His obstinacy would be laughable but for one very important reason: the idea that the new South African government should wield the power of the state to imprison one of the most renowned freedom fighters is anathema to many voters in an era where not only black lives matter, but dominate. Some fear that action against Zuma could lead to civil unrest and violence.
Zuma’s successor, his former deputy Ramaphosa, has promised to purge the governing ANC of the endemic bribery that has severely damaged its credibility in South Africa. Ramaphosa estimates that at least 500 billion Rand (A$60 billion) has been lost to South Africa after looting by Zuma, his cronies and other officials.
Despite the conviction for contempt, the allegations against Zuma are precisely that. He rejects them. There are no significant charges. Whether or when these charges will be brought is anyone’s guess. So is what will happen when his second term in jail is served.