Zuma Express is creaking on the bends

2008-03-15 00:00

African National Congress president Jacob Zuma and his cohorts have for long had a well-considered, two-pronged approach to thwart the charges against him of fraud, corruption, money laundering and racketeering.

The first is to exploit every byway of the judicial process to throw up interference. Should this fail, there is the fallback of populist intimidation to force the government to withdraw the charges.

Since the first strategy is clearly in trouble, the country may see more of the Zuma bludgeon as the August trial approaches. On cue, the Congress of South African Trade Unions has announced ongoing mass demonstrations in Zuma’s support, calling for the charges to be withdrawn.

The stakes are high for Zuma, but they are higher for the country. If the trial proceeds, it is possible that South Africa could face again

the epic street conflicts between police and demonstrators that characterised the apartheid years.

The Zuma legal strategy, in turn, also has two components. The first is to deprive the state of the right to present evidence garnered. This tussle is being played out in the higher courts of South Africa and Mauritius, as Zuma and Thint — the French arms firm that allegedly greased Zuma’s palm — try to suppress material that is obviously damaging to Zuma’s proclamations of innocence.

The second aspect is to stall the case for as long as possible with successive, progressively more tenuous judicial appeals, in the hope that a political deal will force withdrawal of the charges, or, alternatively, that the process becomes mired and Zuma’s election as the country’s president makes the charges moot. Who, after all, would defy the ANC’s most potent propaganda creation — the amorphous and readily appropriated “will of the masses”?

Worryingly for Zuma, there are signs that the legal challenges are running out of steam. While it is foolhardy to predict how 11 independent judges on Constitution Hill might rule, Zuma’s team have not this week had a good time.

They are trying to forestall any of the 93 000 documents seized by the state from being used in his trial. They argue that the terms of the search warrants were unacceptably broad and that the seizure of documents from Zuma’s lawyer’s office contravened attorney-client privilege.

Their argument does not seem to be cutting it. Judge Zac Yacoob commented that the type of “creative conspiracy” Zuma was allegedly involved in justified broad investigation and that he had “no difficulty” with the information that the state had provided to justify the search and seizure.

Zuma’s counsel, Kemp J. Kemp, when asked by Judge Kate O’Regan which documents should not have been taken, made the embarrassing admission that his team had “not investigated” that issue. As state counsel Wim Trengrove pointed out, Zuma and Thint had copies of everything seized, yet there is no claim that specific documents seized were subject to privilege: “They have made no effort to demonstrate they have suffered injustice.”

To compound Zuma’s misery, the prime minister of Mauritius, Navinchandra Ramgoolam, told the Financial Times that Zuma had raised with him the matter of the litigation during a meeting.

“I explained to him that we have an independent judiciary. We don’t intervene. The courts will have to decide,” Ramgoolam said.

If what Ramgoolam claims is true, it is a chilling illustration of Zuma’s approach to the judicial process: that it is a mere inconvenience, easily neutered through political pressure.

Zuma’s minders deny that he requested such intervention. Such denials are becoming the norm when dealing with the man for all seasons. Who would you believe if choosing between Zuma and the Mauritian prime minister?

They also have had to reject Zuma’s views or claim that he was misquoted or deliberately misrepresented on a range of issues, from labour market flexibility and inflation targeting, to the death penalty. As Democratic Alliance leader Helen Zille aptly put it, Zuma is a political polygamist, trying to satisfy many different political brides simultaneously.

It is still a year from the election of a new president of South Africa. One wonders how many carpetbaggers will have chosen to remain on the Zuma Express by that date, given its propensity towards derailment.

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