A bumpy year ahead

2008-01-02 00:00

As the new year begins many of us resolve to make a fresh start: we turn over a new leaf and look to the year ahead as a blank page. That may be so for individuals, but the country as a whole starts the year hampered by looming political challenges. In particular, the suspicion attached to newly elected African National Congress president Jacob Zuma has not melted away as his supporters seem to have hoped and in August he is to face 18 charges, including fraud, corruption, racketeering, tax evasion and money laundering.

It’s a great pity, of course, that this matter, which started back in the days when the first revelations of corruption relating to the arms deal emerged, was not dealt with swiftly and cleanly straight away. If it did have to be deferred, then Zuma’s trial should have coincided with, or quickly followed, that of Schabir Shaik, now serving a 15-year sentence for financial misdemeanours relating to the deal and to Zuma. Why, then, has it dragged on like this, and why, if the evidence is as strong as the National Prosecuting Authority believes, are we to wait another eight months before the case is heard? In part, the delay may stem from the slowness of the South African judicial process, but another reason for it is that Zuma — although he has demanded his “day in court” — has had his legal team invoke every ploy to prevent or defer this: stratagems to hinder evidence-gathering, for example, and to exclude certain pieces of evidence altogether. The delay to next August is less easy to understand, but it may be that his lawyers are claiming that preparation of his defence is an eight-month job.

There are those who suggest that the August trial date has been chosen by President Thabo Mbeki as a way of excluding Zuma from the presidential nomination process in June. In other words, although this may seem a relatively simple legal matter, it’s entangled in a meshwork of political complications. On one hand, supporters of Mbeki will take heart from the announcement of Zuma’s trial and of its timing. On the other, Zuma’s supporters accuse Mbeki of involvement in a “political vendetta” against him. There may thus be ugly scenes at next week’s ANC National Executive Committee (NEC) meeting and at the annual lekgotla a week later, when top government representatives and officials gather to discuss policy. Feelings are running so high in many quarters — and especially in the ANC Youth League, “kingmakers” in the Zuma election campaign — that it’s clear some believe Mbeki should be removed from office.

Amid all the confusion and rhetorical red herrings we must hold to an important truth. This is that in any democracy the rule of law must prevail. All — no matter how popular or exalted — are equal under that law and none are above it. The charges against Zuma are grave indeed and, if the top echelons of the ANC, and even the South African presidency itself, are not to be forever tainted by rumour and suspicion, he must be tried and his guilt or innocence openly determined.

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