Irrevocably tainted

2009-04-08 00:00

Yesterday, the KwaZulu-Natal High Court in Durban endorsed Monday’s decision by the National Prosecuting Authority (NPA) to withdraw the charges against African National Congress president Jacob Zuma. The NPA decision was met with frenzied enthusiasm by Zuma’s supporters, and a good deal of triumphalist bombast from senior ANC members who should know better. The ANC treasurer-general, Matthews Phosa, was heard to gloat publicly: “We have always said Zuma is innocent. We say to the NPA: at last you have seen the light, you have finally seen the truth.”

Is Phosa really just as naïve as many ordinary, uninformed ANC members, or is he guilty of deliberate distortion? In fact, of course, the NPA decision is not proof of Zuma’s innocence at all. Arrived at under political pressure as the elections neared, and without proper examination of the “new evidence” that might or might not have supported the charges, all it says is that the case against him is too flawed to pursue.

As constitutional law expert Shadrack Gutto indicated in his published reaction, it’s clear from the train of events leading to the decision that it was politically engineered. First, there was the mysteriously sudden and still incompletely explained release of Schabir Shaik from prison. Shortly after that Shaik’s brother Mo, speaking at the University of Pretoria, predicted (on equally mysterious authority) that the charges against Zuma would be dropped. The next mystery concerned the new evidence, never examined in court and the decision to be based on it held over until Monday, the day Mo Shaik’s prediction came true. Obviously, this was a well-managed piece of political theatre, given pace and urgency by the rapidly approaching elections.

So, Zuma won’t be charged and tried, and he will be free to become South Africa’s next president but, as the political analyst Steven Friedman has said, the whole question of his guilt is “as unsettled as before and will never be settled. It is not good for our system — he at the very least ought to be aware that he has a credibility problem.”

And that’s the crux of the matter. Having succeeded at long last in eluding the judicial process and the “day in court” he once said he wanted, Zuma, although still technically innocent, is irrevocably tainted by the decade of legal egg-dancing, the endless evasions and prevarications, and so has become forever associated with the murky aspects of the arms deal and with his dodgy financial dealings with Shaik and others. As we contemplate the advent of a president so besmirched, we may think enviously of the United States, where a life in politics demands that one do far more than simply live within the law. Exceptional probity, integrity and demonstrably clean hands are expected, especially of presidential aspirants, who must accept that the minutiae of their lives will be subject to scrutiny, and be ready to withdraw at once at the least whisper of dishonesty or scandal.

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