Former South African president Jacob Zuma, who has been sentenced to 15 months’ imprisonment for contempt of court, has made no secret of his disdain for the democratic principle of accountability. In May 2015, facing evidence of corruption involving his personal homestead, Zuma laughed uproariously in parliament about the claims.
Few South Africans who saw the video clips can forget his performance as he mocked the pronunciation of the name of his rural home by people seeking to hold him to account. “Nkandla” had become a household word because of the since proven corruption perpetrated at the homestead, with state entities paying R206 million ($14.4 million) in taxpayers’ money for luxury improvements.
Zuma was nonplussed, bellowing the word over and over. That public exposure of his abuse of state monies led to a Constitutional Court finding a year later that he had, as president, failed to “uphold, defend and respect” the constitution.
This is the very constitution that had been adopted in the democratic era to overturn the legacies of apartheid from which the country still struggles to escape. The Constitutional Court, the country’s apex court, also found at the time that parliament had failed to fulfil its constitutional duties, one of many institutions that were substantially weakened during what his successor Cyril Ramaphosa describes as the “nine lost years” of the Zuma presidency.
The Nkandla episode and Zuma’s response that day in 2015 exhibited the mix of racial populism and elite entitlement that are the hallmarks of his politics. Combined with a nostalgic anti-apartheid militancy, as exemplified by his signature song “Awuleth’ Umshini wam” (Bring my machine gun), and a faux socialism propounding so-called radical economic transformation, Zuma managed to obfuscate the project of “state capture”, as the grand scale corruption besetting South Africa has since become known as.
While he was thumbing his nose at parliament and South African voters, Zuma accelerated his project of selective enrichment. That same year, he dismissed the country’s respected finance minister Nhlanhla Nene in a bid to take control of the government’s treasury.
As the country spiralled into an economic crisis, state entities were plunged into a morass of corruption. Estimates of the loss of public money to corruption in the Zuma era vary between R500 billion ($34.9 billion) and a trillion rands ($69.8 billion).
The range hints at the pervasiveness of the rot, making it difficult to calculate the damage. Rolling power outages due to the pillage at the state-owned electricity provider Eskom are one of the many nefarious fallouts.
The latest chapter in Zuma’s refusal to be accountable to the people of South Africa links directly to state capture. After managing by a thin majority to become leader of the ruling African National Congress (ANC) in 2017, Ramaphosa used his subsequent rise to the presidency to lead a multi-pronged clean-up campaign to reverse state capture while wresting the ANC from the hands of the Zuma faction.
The appointment of the Commission of Inquiry into Allegations of State Capture forms an important part of Ramaphosa’s campaign. Zuma’s refusal to appear before the commission violated a Constitutional Court decision compelling him to do so. This led the commissioner, Judge Raymond Zondo, to lodge an application directly with the Constitutional Court. As apex court, its decision this week that Zuma must serve 15 months for contempt of court cannot be appealed.
The court decision comes as Zuma is finally in the dock in another court case for corruption charges dating back to the late 1990s. This brings to an end his avoidance of prosecution for allegedly received bribes from French arms company Thales to lubricate the government’s arms deal, valued at R142 billion ($9.9 billion) in current terms.
Simultaneously, Zuma backers who are implicated in corruption have also been suspended from the ANC or government positions, including ANC secretary general Ace Magashule and former provincial premier Supra Muhamopelo . Claims have surfaced about corruption involving former Zuma ally David Mabuza, currently South Africa’s deputy president
Ramaphosa’s time as president has been characterised by a plethora of inquiries and interventions, focusing on restoring the rule of law, clamping down on malfeasance and rebuilding institutions, ranging from the criminal justice sector to state-owned enterprises. Still, his opponents and detractors inside and outside the governing party have painted him as weak and ineffectual.
This is in part due to the necessarily slow progress given the enormity of the task at hand, with South Africa having been downgraded to junk status by ratings agencies and facing a sovereign debt crisis. But the insults also reflect the resistance against his plans by vested interests, and South Africans’ predilection for “strong man” politics, as personified by Zuma.
Reading the latest developments around Zuma alongside the other interventions, Ramaphosa has proven his critics utterly wrong. Painstakingly, he has succeeded in tipping the power balance inside the ruling party in his favour, as the suspensions show.
In a pincer move, by rebuilding institutions to do what they are supposed to, he seems to be outmanoevring those ANC leaders who have so far believed that they are untouchable in their impunity. Ramaphosa can be said to be engaged in what Italian thinker Antonio Gramsci called “a war of position”: rather than using force to effect change, as his opponents would, he has slowly shifted the public discourse and institutions back to the constitutional imperative.
Ramaphosa demonstrated his aptitude for clever political footwork when he served as chief ANC negotiator during South Africa’s transition to democracy, resulting in the constitutional dispensation which Zuma is so dismissive of. It should therefore not come as a surprise that Ramaphosa is working to set South Africa back on the course envisaged in the 1990s with the adoption of the constitution.
The Constitutional Court’s confirmation that powerful politicians are beholden to the principle of equality before the law is a breakthrough in the battle to secure South Africa’s democracy. The next test will be whether Zuma hands himself over to law enforcement agencies, which he may well not do, and whether the law enforcement agencies will then take the necessary steps, as ordered by the court. Either way, the stage has been set for prosecutions based on the mounting evidence that the state capture commission has gathered.
Christi van der Westhuizen is an author and associate professor at the Centre for the Advancement of Non-Racialism and Democracy at Nelson Mandela University, South Africa
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