Helen Zille: 10 years of court battles to 'Stop Zuma' finally pay off

Former president Jacob Zuma is seen inside the Pietermaritzburg High Court during his hearing for an application for a permanent stay of prosecution on May 24, 2019 in Pietermaritzburg. (Gallo Images/Thulie Dlamini)
Former president Jacob Zuma is seen inside the Pietermaritzburg High Court during his hearing for an application for a permanent stay of prosecution on May 24, 2019 in Pietermaritzburg. (Gallo Images/Thulie Dlamini)

It is sobering to think that South Africa's "nine wasted Zuma years" (and an estimated $50bn lost to corruption) might have been avoided had he faced charges related to the arms deal earlier, writes Helen Zille.

So, it's finally official: Jacob Zuma will have his day in court.

This is what he always demanded, but did everything possible to avoid, spending about R18m of public money on lawyers' fees in the process.

For its part, the Democratic Alliance (DA) spent around R3m (through eight court appearances) since 2009, to ensure that the former president answers the case against him (which involve 16 charges on over 700 counts of corruption, fraud, racketeering and money laundering).

Anyone under the age of 20 today, wasn't even born when the alleged crimes were committed in the late 1990s, during the arms deal era, when Jacob Zuma was a middle-ranking provincial politician in KwaZulu-Natal.

READ | EXCLUSIVE: Shadowy ring of spies who reported directly to Zuma still active

And the crimes with which he is charged (involving financial favours in return for political patronage as well as R500 000 a year from French arms company Thales), seem puny compared with the industrial-scale corruption that later became the hallmark of his presidency.

It is sobering to think that South Africa's "nine wasted Zuma years" (and an estimated $50bn lost to corruption) might have been avoided had Zuma faced these charges earlier.

The case was making progress, against great odds, until it was stopped in its tracks on that fateful day, April 6, 2009, when Mokotedi Mpshe, acting national director of public prosecutions, announced the withdrawal of the charges, thereby giving Zuma a clear run to the Presidency in the general election just 16 days later.

That would have been the end of the matter – had the DA not been ready to submit a review application to the Pretoria High Court the very next day – on April 7, 2009. The last two weeks of our election campaign were dominated by two words: "Stop Zuma."

Despite the hammering we took from the media for "racist, negative campaigning", many voters understood the difference between "racism" and an anti-corruption drive. They added 20 seats to our parliamentary caucus, bringing our total to 67 – but still far short of what we needed to "Stop Zuma" politically.

Nobody above the law

Why didn't we accept the verdict of the electorate, and walk away from the matter, our critics asked? They accused us of turning to the courts and trying to win judicially what we had failed to win politically.

Our answer was simple: No individual, institution or process in South Africa is above the law. The rule of law is the foundation stone of any constitutional democracy. As the official opposition, we were obliged to defend it.

Mpshe's reasons for withdrawing the charges had been so weak and contradictory as to be irrational. And our Constitution requires government institutions and officials to act rationally in the execution of their duties. Failure to do so is unlawful. That has been the nub of the DA's case, over nine years, in every court appearance.

And even when, in September 2017, Zuma's legal team made the dramatic concession in the Supreme Court of Appeal that the decision to drop the charges had indeed been irrational, we still could not rest our case.

Zuma's lawyers tried again, arguing that several factors, including the long delay in bringing the charges, had prejudiced their client's rights, and that there should be a permanent stay of prosecution. This was the bid that failed in the High Court last week.

This means that after all this time, we have merely reached the end of the beginning. Only now can the corruption trial commence.

Great damage to our institutions

It will be an enormous test for the institutions that Zuma sought to destroy in his bid to avoid prosecution. Some have disappeared entirely, while others suffered profound damage as Zuma sought to capture them and bend them to his political interests.

The first casualty was the corruption-busting Scorpions unit. Their establishment in 2001 under President Thabo Mbeki had introduced prosecution-led investigations, with the Directorate of Special Operations (as the Scorpions were formally known) co-operating with other units in the National Prosecuting Authority (NPA) to gather evidence required to secure convictions.

As this approach was a direct threat to Zuma and his co-conspirators in the arms deal, Zuma scrapped the Scorpions and replaced them with the Hawks, which conveniently reported to SAPS, under the political control of a close Zuma ally.

When the Hawks started investigating Nkandla-linked corruption, the police minister suspended the head of the Hawks, Anwa Dramat, despite a court ruling that the minister did not have the power to do so. Eventually, under evident duress, Dramat accepted a substantial package to retire. The message was clear: anyone who took on Zuma and his acolytes would have a truncated career.

Perhaps the greatest sustained damage of the Zuma years was wrought at the NPA. The national director of public prosecutions is appointed by the president.  So it was no surprise that Zuma appointed one national director after another who he could rely on to protect his interests. 

Instead of collating evidence and driving successful prosecutions, the NPA became the place where cases against members of Zuma's political faction went to die.

A long way from recovery

And even today, it is still a long way from recovery, judging from the amount of time it is taking for Advocate Shamila Batohi, the new director of public prosecutions, to start laying corruption charges arising out of the mind-boggling corruption allegations that have emerged in evidence before various commissions of inquiry appointed by President Cyril Ramaphosa.

The paralysis of our own institutions was thrown into sharp relief last week when the United States (US) government beat South Africa in imposing the first penalty against the Gupta corruption network, by prohibiting US persons to do business with anyone involved in their network, and freezing assets they may have in America.

Our institutions haven't even scratched the surface of the Gupta years yet. They are still battling to bring the Shaik-related cases to court, involving what Americans would call "nickel-and-dime" corruption.

There is one consolation. Zuma can no longer avoid the day of reckoning by raiding the public purse to protect his personal interests. The DA also successfully brought a court case requiring the president to pay his own legal costs in defending himself on corruption charges unrelated to his official duties.

This has been a long and painful saga, but has played a pivotal role in establishing crucial judicial precedents, and consolidating the rule of law and the principle of accountability as cornerstones of our constitutional dispensation.

There is still a long way to go. But we are moving in the right direction.

- Zille is former leader of the DA and premier of the Western Cape.

Disclaimer: News24 encourages freedom of speech and the expression of diverse views. The views of columnists published on News24 are therefore their own and do not necessarily represent the views of News24.

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