Doing the right thing

2009-02-18 00:00

Jacob Zuma’s statement the other day that for him to step down as the ANC’s presidential candidate because of the corruption charges he faces would set a bad precedent is, frankly, nonsense.

The opposite is the case. It would set an excellent precedent, showing that Zuma places the interests of his party and his country ahead of his personal ambitions.

As it is, it appears almost certain that our wonderful rainbow nation, so recently the toast of the whole world, is going to have a new head of state who is an accused criminal, facing 16 charges of fraud, corruption, racketeering and money laundering. Which is hardly a prospect to make us all feel proudly South African.

Israel is hardly a paragon of political probity these days, yet its departing prime minister, Ehud Olmert, is going for precisely the same reason. He stepped aside from last week’s Israeli election because he is to be indicted for illegally accepting “cash envelopes” from a New York businessman while he was mayor of Jerusalem some years ago.

Like Zuma, Olmert insists that he is innocent, but he says that he is “proud to be a citizen of a country where the prime minister can be investigated like any other citizen”.

There’s no hint of a bad precedent in that there is no suggestion that the police or the attorney-general or anyone else are conducting a conspiracy against him or has “thrown a dark cloud” at him with the aim of demolishing him, as Zuma has put it. Olmert is simply doing the right thing in the interests of his party and his country.

The mistake Zuma and the ANC are making is to imagine, as his metaphor suggests, that the case against him is an insubstantial thing, a cloud that will blow over with time. It won’t. Scandals don’t go away if they are not resolved. They live on and periodically surge back to life as new bits of evidence are unearthed to provide a new insight and a new headline and a recapping of the whole ugly story.

As long as there is an unfinished story there will be people who will keep digging and who will keep on exposing, so that the scandal will keep on suppurating and poisoning all around it. Like Watergate and Muldergate.

Even if Zuma and his supporters succeed in getting rid of the prosecutors in this case and installing a tame successor to Vusi Pikoli who will dutifully drop the charges against Zuma, it still won’t go away. In Judge Chris Nicholson’s wise words in his otherwise flawed judgment, if no proper investigation is held into the arms deal “a cloud of scandal and suspicion” will remain over the leaders of this country. Particularly Zuma.

Just think on this: wherever Zuma goes as president of South Africa, he will be unable to protect himself against accusations that he is a corrupt leader. Because he will not be able to bring a legal claim of libel or slander against any accuser, for to do so would involve having to go to court to testify and face cross-examination on the subject — which is precisely what Zuma has fought so long and so hard to avoid having to do.

Such an inability to defend one’s integrity will surely be a most uncomfortable position for any head of state to be in as he travels the world.

Many mitigating arguments are being advanced by Zuma’s supporters to justify scrapping the charges against him. One is that the returning ANC exiles found themselves in dire financial circumstances, with no jobs and no homes to come back to and that they had no choice but to seek help from business tycoons who were only too ready to ingratiate themselves with people they knew would soon be governing the country.

This is certainly true, and no doubt many did seek and receive such help. One can also sympathise particularly with the position Zuma found himself in, with his multiple wives and many children, and the fact that he was initially deployed to the provincial legislature of KwaZulu-Natal, at a lower salary than MPs received, so that he could help negotiate an end to the terrible political warfare raging there.

But there is a critical difference between accepting such financial aid and misusing one’s political position to secure contractual advantages for one’s benefactors, which is what Zuma is accused of having done.

Then again, it is said that Zuma was “small fry” in the arms deal compared with others who have not been charged. Maybe, but then the fault lies in the failure to pursue the other, bigger fish, not in the fact that Zuma and Schabir Shaik have been charged. Decisions to prosecute are dependent on the availability of evidence and who knows whether this may yet be forthcoming, although with the scrapping of the Scorpions the likelihood of it has shrunk.

It is also pertinent to ask, how small is small in this sprawling affair? Zuma is charged with having received 783 payments from Shaik totalling R4 072 499,85 between October, 25, 1995, and July 1, 2005. The payments are itemised in the indictment in a 17-page “schedule of benefits”. As Paul Holden puts it in his excellent little pocketbook on the arms deal, if that schedule is ever presented in court and proved valid, it will indicate that Shaik was supporting Zuma’s business affairs and lifestyle for almost a full decade, even after Zuma became deputy president with a substantial salary and for a full month after Shaik himself had been found guilty by Judge Hilary Squires.

As Squires put it in his judgment, the two were functioning in a state of “mutually beneficial symbiosis”. And the deals involved were certainly not small fry. The contract for the combat suites for the

German corvettes cost us taxpayers R6,2 billion and the asset forfeiture of R34 million provides a yardstick for the profits that Shaik got out of the deals. Which, of course, is why he was sentenced to 15 years’ imprisonment.

Another suggestion is that the National Prosecuting Authority (NPA) should suspend charges against Zuma on the specific condition that the government institutes a full commission of inquiry into the arms deal immediately after assuming office after the April 22 election.

It’s an interesting suggestion, but there is one problem about such a trade-off. The arms deal itself covers only about one-quarter of the charges against Zuma. The rest relate to other alleged deals in his 10-year relationship with Shaik.

Willem Heath has published an article urging the NPA to ask itself whether it is in the public interest to continue with the prosecution of Zuma. Given that the country is in a state of transition and facing serious challenges, he clearly thinks it is not. Heath is a former judge, but he has also been retained as a legal adviser to Zuma, so his view is partisan.

A more objective question might be to ask whether it is in the public interest for someone facing such serious criminal charges to become president of the country in the first place. Particularly since there is a perfectly capable incumbent.

Join the conversation! encourages commentary submitted via MyNews24. Contributions of 200 words or more will be considered for publication.

We reserve editorial discretion to decide what will be published.
Read our comments policy for guidelines on contributions. publishes all comments posted on articles provided that they adhere to our Comments Policy. Should you wish to report a comment for editorial review, please do so by clicking the 'Report Comment' button to the right of each comment.

Comment on this story
Comments have been closed for this article.

Inside News24

Traffic Alerts
There are new stories on the homepage. Click here to see them.


Create Profile

Creating your profile will enable you to submit photos and stories to get published on News24.

Please provide a username for your profile page:

This username must be unique, cannot be edited and will be used in the URL to your profile page across the entire network.


Location Settings

News24 allows you to edit the display of certain components based on a location. If you wish to personalise the page based on your preferences, please select a location for each component and click "Submit" in order for the changes to take affect.

Facebook Sign-In

Hi News addict,

Join the News24 Community to be involved in breaking the news.

Log in with Facebook to comment and personalise news, weather and listings.