Zuma is sliced, diced and grilled

2008-02-23 00:00

Anyone with a cursory exposure to children knows that they are able to distinguish right from wrong at a remarkably young age. Certainly any five-year-old, especially in crime-ridden South Africa, knows what a crook is. So it is rather sad that Jacob Zuma, our wannabe president, lacks the moral sophistication of a snot-nosed toddler.

On the BBC’s Panorama programme he was asked bluntly by Fergal Keane: “Are you a crook?” Clearly disconcerted, Zuma prevaricates: “Me? Well, I don’t know, I must go to a dictionary and learn what a crook is.”

Then it dawns that he is drowning in front of millions of television viewers and he adds, not entirely with conviction: “I’ve never been a crook.” The rest of the interview proceeds in much the same vein — tough questions followed by evasive, incoherent and dissembling answers.

For South Africans with any national pride this was intensely embarrassing stuff and one marvels at the naïvety of his advisers to allow him to face a real, live journalist. Keane is like none of the patsies Zuma is regularly served up by the SABC but his showing on Panorama is apparently no worse than his recent off-the-record encounters with the world’s media elite at Davos.

At the very least, Zuma should be coached on how to answer the inevitable questions regarding his alleged corruption. As noted previously in this column, Zuma never unequivocally proclaims his innocence. Rather, he reiterates that he is innocent until proven guilty.

These are very different things. The implication is that he is not quite sure of his innocence or guilt but is prepared to leave it up to the wisdom of the courts.

There is a unique provision in Scots law that gives the court the latitude to bring a verdict of “not proven”. This occurs when guilt cannot be proved beyond doubt, but there is a sufficiently strong presumption of such guilt to not declare the accused innocent.

The extraordinary lengths to which Zuma and his legal team are going to suppress evidence —including a taxpayer-funded application in Mauritius to withhold documentation that details meetings between Zuma, his jailed pal Schabir Shaik, and a French arms dealer — do not inspire confidence in his innocence.

It is admittedly likely that Zuma’s prosecution was politically motivated, in the same way that President Thabo Mbeki tried to head off corruption charges against National Police Commissioner Jackie Selebi. However, contrary to the view of the Zuma camp, the motivation for prosecution is irrelevant as long as there is evidence of wrongdoing.

Both men — one an Mbeki foe, the other an Mbeki ally — have been investigated and both have been charged. If an independent judiciary finds that there is insufficient evidence to convict, they will be acquitted.

Both men are probably fortunate that this is not Scotland, with the lasting taint of a “not proven” verdict.

There is, sadly, a generally well-founded picture of what the world expects of an African ruler: a corrupt, authoritarian social conservative who exploits ethnicity. These are the expectations that Zuma will have to confound if he is to be a successful president of the nation.

As the investment literature always warns, past performance is no guarantee of future results. But Zuma’s behaviour so far has been uninspiring and does little to dispel the gathering gloom of many, if not most, South Africans about the future.

However attractive Zuma might be to his communist and trade unionist backers as an easily manipulated “useful idiot”, to use Lenin’s phrase, his actions since Polokwane must be worrying them. The views he expresses, especially on the rule of law and media freedom, are often at odds with the Constitution — the same Constitution that his lawyers are trying to leverage to keep him out of jail.

Zuma’s legal team must be praying hard for a dismissal of the charges before he comes to trial. Given Zuma’s display on the Panorama show, they will not want to see him being served up in the witness box for slicing, dicing and grilling by an even more hostile prosecutor.

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