Good sense and inspirational leadership

2008-07-19 00:00

After 14 years of African National Congress government, South Africa faces a grave political crisis. Unless defused through good sense and inspirational leadership, it will trigger a collapse of constitutional rule and eventually condemn the country to the despotism that has been the fate of much of Africa.

Events post-Polokwane have laid bare the inadequacies and corruption of President Thabo Mbeki’s administration. Equally, on the side of his internal rivals, there is an ominous indifference to the democratic structures that the African National Congress fought so long and hard to establish.

Mbeki’s putative successor, African National Congress president Jacob Zuma and his allies, make it clear that they will do anything to forestall him appearing in court. Counter-revolutionaries must be killed; the opposition Democratic Alliance must be eliminated and a judiciary stuffed with unrehabilitated and unrepentant remnants of the ancient regime, all poisoned towards Zuma, must be transformed.

Enough has become public, firstly in the trial of Zuma’s financial adviser Schabir Shaik and then through the filings of the National Prosecuting Authority and Zuma’s own legal team, to convince a disinterested observer that Zuma has a case to answer. On the other hand, in rebuttal of the Zuma camp’s fulminations, there is no credible evidence that courts are — not yet, in any case — political tools.

That Zuma is so eager to avoid a trial will for many always taint his credibility with the likelihood of guilt. But perhaps this does not matter.

Other democracies, including Italy twice in recent history, have had presidents who are obvious crooks. In support of Zuma it might be argued that South Africa’s political health is so in extremis, that the attending doctor having dirty hands is the least of our worries.

In any case, the Zuma camp is justifiably aggrieved about one thing. Zuma’s prosecution was undoubtedly politically motivated, to the same proportion that Mbeki did everything possible to prevent the prosecution of his mate, National Police Commissioner Jackie Selebi.

The riposte of those who want to see Zuma in court and preferably in jail, is that the issue is not the reasons for prosecuting Zuma, but guilt or innocence after a fair trial. Alas, it is not that simple. It is patently unjust for Zuma to be prosecuted in an act of vengeance — however guilty he might be — while equally guilty parties escape prosecution because they are Mbeki cronies.

There have been damning revelations of how spectacularly mismanaged and corrupt Mbeki’s government has been at every level. The Nationalist Party’s notorious malfeasance shrinks into insignificance when compared with the grand scale of theft of state assets — running into billions — on his watch.

If Zuma were to be accompanied in the dock by all the Mbeki pals who are implicated in wrongdoing — the only just course — such a hearing would have to be held in the Ellis Park Stadium. Satisfying though it would be to see the serried ranks of senior comrades having to account for their misdeeds, it is not going to happen.

To attempt this could be as great a threat to a young democracy as a successful indictment of Zuma that resulted in the dismemberment of the judiciary and evisceration of the Constitution that is threatened by his supporters. However galling it might be, if Zuma and his blackmailing legions cannot be outmanoeuvred, the prosecution must be withdrawn.

While that is a necessary concession, it is obviously also a dangerous precedent, a slippery slope. Great leadership will be needed to prevent a post-Mbeki democracy from sliding into the abyss. Until now there has been little in Zuma’s behaviour to suggest that he has latent such statesmanship.

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