Jacob Zuma’s imprisonment is a victory for South Africa’s post-apartheid constitution | Mark Gevisser

Corruption still sadly plays a part in public life here, but we’re making steps in the right direction

On Wednesday night, at 45 minutes to midnight, Jacob Zuma blinked. In what was the most consequential moment for the rule of law in post-apartheid South Africa, the former president handed himself into police.

Zuma was, in fact, three days late. The apex constitutional court ruled last week that he must surrender himself by Sunday on a charge of contempt of court, after repeatedly refusing to appear before a statutory commission looking at allegations of corruption made against him. If he did not voluntarily turn himself in, the police minister was set to arrest him by midnight on Wednesday. For the past week, Zuma and his supporters – gathered outside his rural redoubt near Nkandla in KwaZulu-Natal – threatened resistance and even war against the state if the authorities tried to enter the compound, while his lawyers engaged in futile litigation to try to get him off the hook (a judge dismissed Zuma’s application this morning).

The ruling African National Congress dispatched its leadership to defuse the situation. Yet deputy secretary-general Jessie Duarte publicly wished Zuma success in challenging his incarceration. The party seemed divided. Outside Zuma’s Nkandla homestead, police failed to disperse the event that attracted hundreds over the weekend and contravened Covid restrictions. South Africa is in a lethal Delta variant-driven third wave with all public meetings banned. At a press briefing, Zuma had the audacity to compare the regulations to apartheid-era states of emergency, offering them as proof of the government’s tyranny. Yet, he simultaneously complained that, by sending him to jail in the midst of the pandemic, the constitutional court was handing him “a death sentence”.

When asked if he’d instruct his supporters not to resist his arrest, the former president warned, Trumpishly, “you must not provoke people”. His lawyer Dali Mpofu outrageously issued the same threat to a judge on Tuesday, evoking the ghost of the 2012 Marikana massacre, where police killed 34 striking miners, by suggesting that the imperative of not causing “another Marikana” should override any legal consideration of jurisdiction. The police minister Bheki Cele prevaricated. Finally, at the very last moment on Wednesday night, a large police contingent headed off to Nkandla to do its job. This is when Zuma decided to turn himself in.

Zuma is deeply implicated in what’s become known as “state capture”: the kleptocracy forged by the relationship between the president and many others in government with a criminal syndicate run by the Gupta family. It was Zuma’s refusal to appear before what has become known as the state capture commission that led to his contempt sentence. He is also currently on trial for corruption charges relating to an arms deal when he was deputy president. He denies any wrongdoing, despite the mounds of evidence, much of it submitted to the commission he refuses to attend, on the grounds that it is biased against him.

“Those in power and those in the judiciary clearly don’t know what it means to wield power,” said Zuma to his supporters on the weekend, about the constitutional court’s judgment. He meant that the court and the state were abusing their powers, but also – ominously – that such powers were puny when faced with those of a martial and canny patriarch such as himself. It was a taunt, and his capitulation on Wednesday night is nothing less than a triumph for the rule of law in a country whose post-apartheid promise has been trashed by such impunity. Zuma might style himself a “prisoner of conscience”, but South Africans have now witnessed, tangibly, the power of this country’s constitution and the courts that are its custodian to put even an ex-president behind bars.

Does this mean we are entering a new era of constitutionalism that might deliver on the promises of the Mandela era? Zuma’s successor, Cyril Ramaphosa, led the charge to fire him as president because of the corruption allegations, and wants to be the face of a clean ANC. He faces a sisyphean task. Even his supposed allies turn out to be compromised. He had to put his health minister Zweli Mhkize on “special leave” last month after it was revealed that he was implicated in a racket to divert Covid-19 communications funds to cronies alleged to have benefited his family in return. While Digital Vibes – the communications company Mkhize allegedly instructed his department to contract, run by a close friend – ran profligate press conferences and pocketed millions of rand, there has been virtually no government outreach campaign to citizens about vaccination. The outrage is that South Africa is far behind its vaccination targets – because of fear and ignorance, rather than resource scarcity. This as the third wave bites, with more than 20,000 new cases and 400 deaths reported a day at the moment.

Meanwhile, the state electricity provider continues to regularly plunge us into darkness as a consequence of corruption and mismanagement, and the passenger rail system barely functions. The reasons for this, and other serious problems in the state’s ability to govern, have been amply aired at the state capture commission. But so deep was the damage done by Zuma and his cronies to the criminal justice system that the National Prosecuting Authority has been unable, yet, to lay charges against all but one or two of the perpetrators.

In truth, we have more to fear from the continuing corruption and inefficiency in Ramaphosa’s government than from the political instability that Zuma’s supporters might cause. Although there have been protests across KwaZulu-Natal this morning, the anxiety over a backlash to his arrest is overstated: although he is much loved in his home province and too many people feel sorry for him, his diehards are a ragtag coterie. Increasingly alienated from a Ramaphosa-led ANC, they will likely ally themselves with Julius Malema’s thuggish Economic Freedom Fighters to the left. The best way to limit the growth of such a coalition of malcontents is for the government to provide decent services, a feasible plan to revive the tanking economy, and a reason for South Africans to trust that they will be protected by the police and the courts against endemic lawlessness. The rot that travels down from high-level state corruption to street level, and criminality causes people to live in a state of perpetual fear.

Deputy chief justice Sisi Khampepe began her judgment against Zuma with a quote from Nelson Mandela: “We expect you to stand on guard not only against direct assault on the principles of the constitution, but against insidious corrosion.” Mandela said these words to the country’s first constitutional court judges at its inauguration in 1995. Khampepe was using them to send a message to her fellow jurists, to Ramaphosa’s government, and to all of us South Africans.

  • Mark Gevisser is a South African author and journalist


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