Jacob Zuma being imprisoned for contempt of court still renders South Africa’s politics susceptible to destabilisation, and incentivises his former associates to behave more dangerously, writes Auwal Socio-Economic Research Institute’s Ebrahim Fakir.
From peasant to political prisoner, from prisoner to president, and from president to prisoner – that sums up the trajectory of Jacob Zuma’s eventful life.
His return to prison post-presidency is entirely justified, just as his imprisonment under apartheid was not.
The canard that Zuma, his supporters and legal representatives (who should really have known better), tried to (unsuccessfully) posit was that the Constitutional Court’s judgement sentencing Zuma to a term of imprisonment was tantamount to a return to "detention without" trial. This unfortunate attempt at (im)moral equivalence failed spectacularly, in the face of the cold light of the facts.
Zuma defied the Zondo Commission’s summonses to appear before it. More egregiously, Zuma defiantly failed to subsequently explain this defiance to the Constitutional Court, despite multiple invitations to do so. And not in his usual vague and obfuscatory way, but by simply not appearing. This stubborn recalcitrance together with the toxic mix of arrogance and invincibility - along with poor legal representation - was his undoing.
But this undoing is not a product of the prosecution and conviction on multiple substantive charges preferred against him. It is merely related to his defiance of summons to appear before a commission, and the subsequent defiance of a court order requesting his explanation of why.
Difference between arrest and hand over
Still, it is an important marker for equality before the law, for the rule of law and for the potential for justice and accountability, even though it is premature to celebrate this as the entrenchment of the rule of law, or the attainment of justice. It is not. Entrenching the rule of law and the attainment of justice is a continuous pursuit. This is one important milestone along the journey of responsibility and accountability. There may still be hazards, twists and turns along the way. But it is an important and encouraging moment for South Africa.
In recognising this though, some important facts, and their interpretation, needs to be established.
First, reports that suggest Mr Zuma handed himself over to the authorities are inaccurate. He did not. Had he done so, he would have been in custody since Sunday night. Turns out, he was three days late.
Second, he was not "arrested" by the police. He was politely taken into custody, by his own VIP security detail, by some accounts.
These seemingly nitty-gritty distinctions seem trivial, but they are not. They are determinate for how we interpret public acts.
First – Mr Zuma should not be conferred with the mantle of conscience and responsibility. He did not voluntarily and willingly comply with the order of the court.
He, in fact, had to be taken into custody, even if it is under circumstances and conditions different from the rest of us, had we committed a similar infraction. He doesn’t deserve being granted the credibility of "having done the conscientious and responsible thing". Nor should the impression be created that the police arrested him, rendering him a hapless victim - as he and his supporters assiduously try and prove. The custodial action was an administrative execution of the order of court, carried out by the authorities authorised to do so. At least this was done responsibly and out of the public glare, even if it were done in a manner not afforded others.
Encouraging that there was no insurrection
Despite this – it is encouraging, even inspiring - that on a continent where instability and insurrection could easily have been precipitated following the imprisonment of a "politician" long accustomed to the (ab)use of authority and influence – impunity - that comes with seeming invincibility, could be jailed without much fanfare.
This is not to say that they didn’t try. For days on end, Zuma and his acolytes tried to threaten society with instability - breaching public trust, civic morality and social and public order, by tried suggesting that justice could only be served through manufactured processes appropriate for moments of historical crisis, which are then wrongfully applied to instances of infraction created by subjective, acquisitive and criminal behaviour.
This motivates for a mode of government that is entirely informal, in which no objective standard for what is right and wrong exists, and a system in which the powerful, popular and wealthy are able to do as they please. To wit – that he shouldn’t be prosecuted. Some even tried the hoary argument of suggesting that other (apartheid-era) leaders should be prosecuted first, never mind that they were silent about this for the past 25 years when there was ample opportunity to do so.
But unprincipled and opportunistic immoral relativism, is unsurprising. The political adventurers, tsotis and thieves that joined Zuma on the malevolent state capture venture, now have a greater fear of being at risk of prosecution, since a semblance of predictability, consistency and the fair and equal application of law appears to be clawing its way back into the criminal justice system. it would thus be in their interest to continue to undermine the regulatory authority and ability of the state, a function vital to the management and preservation of the rights of citizens through the presence of a well-functioning and effective judiciary, in whose absence, we saw, predatory interests take firm root. More fundamentally, the long eroded coercive and enforcement functions of the state and the legitimate use of state power, like the judicial system and the police and defence forces to extract compliance, renders them vulnerable to prosecution.
State capture was enabled by the ANC. The faux sabre rattling that they engaged in, however, along with malevolent state capture (as opposed to benevolent state capture), was facilitated and enabled by the ANC. For near on a decade, the ANC harboured and shielded Zuma from any probity, instead actively advancing, a peculiar, paternalistic and patronising politics of predation through the irresponsible abuse of its majority in institutions. It blunted oversight, configured policy contradictorily through an inappropriate policy mix of imposing austerity in social welfare, economic development and redistribution while simultaneously facilitating rampant rent seeking through corrupt and illegal means through manipulated processes in the state.
This too was enabled by the echoes of the irresponsible rhetoric that brought Zuma to power in the first place in 2007 and 2009.
One of the unintended consequences of the media covering the fabrications, illogic, manufactured facts and fake news of Zuma’s cheerleaders, and the absurd "ventilations" of his legal team, is that it brought to light the unconvincing narrative of conspiracy and unjust victimisation borne of paranoid delusion.
This explains why the "defence of Zuma" ended on a whimper, rather than a bang.
No time to be complacent
This is not reason for complacency. Even though the grandiose delusions and megalomania of other "political leaders" - primarily Zuma’s erstwhile enemies, now friends & frenemies – who trade in some the same outlandish rhetoric and the twin delusions of invincibility and arrogance, that the public is no longer seduced by the faux radicalism of rage that is in service of personal aggrandisement and avarice.
In the end, Zuma’s actions were neither heroic nor steadfast. Neither brave, nor principled. It was merely ignominious. The inevitable capitulation of a person without options.
Anything else was a chimera. This was confirmed by the Pietermaritzburg high court's dismissal of Jacob Zuma's application to stay his arrest. In principle then, Zuma being imprisoned for contempt of court still renders South Africa’s politics susceptible to destabilisation and incentivises his former associates to behave more dangerously, and as they become more vulnerable, their sabre-rattling is likely to intensify.
Destabilising society in the short-term is in their interests as they try to recapture power and influence inside formal party organs, or form temporary coalitions of convenience for mutual benefit and protection. In the interim, this may give rise to constantly shifting alliances, formed in ways in which it comes impossible to know who stands for what, what their ideas are and what politics they pursue.
The organising principle of politics, becomes about popular issues being used in populist ways in which recidivist politicians mask their more immediate and narrow accumulative claims and concerns in the guise of problem-solving. Instead, they create more problems, destabilise institutions of society and state in an effort to immunise themselves from prosecution and protect the proceeds of their predation.
Societies then get embroiled in deep conflict not of their own making, resurfacing latent and residual social antagonisms based on identity cleavages which assume political primacy in perpetuating social antagonisms instead of solving and extinguishing them.
- Ebrahim Fakir is Director of Programmes at the Auwal Socio Economic Research Institute and is a member of the board of directors of Afesis-Corplan, a development NGO based in the Eastern Cape
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