Appeal court judgment

2009-01-13 00:00

THERE has developed a great gulf between populist politics and the uncritical support which ANC president Jacob Zuma enjoys among many people on the one hand and the law on the other. To his supporters Zuma is beyond criticism irrespective of what he might have done. In other quarters the charges that have been laid against him compromise him irretrievably and thus make him unsuitable for presidential office in South Africa.

After the former Director of Public Prosecution Bulelani Ngcuka declared, when instituting the charges against Zuma’s financial adviser Schabir Shaik, that although there was a prima facie case against Zuma he did not propose to charge him, Zuma’s response was that he wanted his day in court to clear his name. Since then, however, in a series of legal actions, Zuma has adopted what appears to be a sustained strategy of frustrating the prosecution — a strategy which simultaneously has suggested a lack of confidence in his own innocence.

Zuma has, however, secured two encouraging judgments along the way. In September 2006 Judge Herbert Msimang of the KwaZulu-Natal bench refused to grant the prosecution the extension of time which it asked for to finalise its case and, when it declared that it was not yet ready to proceed, struck the case from the roll. Two years later, in a judgment which, in the eyes of some legal analysts, went against the legal tide, Judge Chris Nicholson gave another decision in Zuma’s favour, finding that there had been political meddling in his prosecution. Whether Nicholson had foreseen the huge political ramifications or not is uncertain, but that ruling led to what was quaintly termed the “recall” of former president Thabo Mbeki six months before his term of office was due to end anyway, providing great relief for Zuma supporters who have always claimed that their hero was being unfairly singled out.

Now, ironically, within 48 hours of the ANC launching its campaign for an election that is only months away, the Supreme Court of Appeal has overturned Nicholson’s judgment. This means that the charges against Zuma are automatically reinstated, making the face of the ruling party’s election campaign once more the accused in a criminal case.

Obviously this ruling could well add to political uncertainty. It might also have economic implications. Within minutes, for instance, the rand weakened against the dollar. The firing of Mbeki triggered a split in the ANC and the emergence of the Congress of the People (Cope). While Zuma’s woes will probably make no difference whatsoever to the die-hard ANC faithful, they will certainly be a blessing to the opposition parties. Zuma’s declaration at the ANC policy launch that the party would “step up measures in the fight against corruption within its ranks and the state” rings singularly hollow when its leader and presidential candidate is himself charged with graft and corruption.

Zuma could, of course, attempt to buy time by appealing to the Constitutional Court. Whatever he does, however, he is no longer off the hook and the political outlook has been clouded by yesterday’s judgment.

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