A torrent of water, a sprinkling of stalwarts

Andrew Donaldson writes on Accused Number One's latest non-appearance in court


AN intriguing collective noun has appeared in the latest accounts of Jacob Zuma’s continuing off-and-off-again corruption trial. It is TimesLive reporter Tania Broughton’s description of those of a certain ilk who had turned up at the Pietermaritzburg High Court on Monday in support of Accused Number One: “a sprinkling of stalwarts”.

These redoubtables include Carl Niehaus, the lovelorn Duduzile Ivanka Zuma-Sambudla, Jacob Zuma Foundation chair Mzwanele “Jimmy” Manyi, RET spokesman Nkosentsha Shezi (a man who insists, with some authority, that he is not a wizard) and uBaba’s “special friend”, former SAA chair Dudu Myeni. 

None of whom, it hardly needs saying, can readily be considered “sprinkly”. 

This, alas, is particularly true of Myeni, who, prior to proceedings before Judge Piet Koen, saw fit to launch herself at hapless photojournalist Sandile Ndlovu, aggressively slapping away at his camera and then “latching herself”, as one account put it, to his backpack of equipment. 

This must have been terrifying, even for a hardened media professional like Ndlovu. Myeni is no lightweight in the latching on department. Readers will recall the arduous years of struggle to prise the national carrier out from under her. To suggest that SAA was a tad broken by the time it had been finally jemmied from her “stewardship” is something of an understatement. Happily, Ndlovu was left relatively unscathed by the fleeting encounter with the delinquent Dudu.

Ms Broughton’s ironic turn of phrase was of course inspired by the “torrential downpours” that have resulted in the devastating floods in KwaZulu-Natal. The weather boffins have attributed the unseasonal downfall to a “cut-off low system linked to the surface low-pressure southeast of the country”. 

But, before the biblical deluge, the heavens did however literally rain on the Zuma supporters’ parade, with the result that a threatened mass turnout on Monday had, disappointingly, been reduced to a piss-poor shower instead, with a no-show from the man himself, who was apparently too ill to make an appearance. 

This may or may not explain Myeni’s atavistic behaviour, but it is now patently clear that the implicit threat of violence, bloodletting and anarchy has moved to the fore as a strategy in preventing the Thief-in-Chief from having that day in court his legal team claim he so dearly desires.

Ahead of Monday’s court proceedings, News24 reported that Zuma’s lawyers had urged Judge Koen to be “aware” of last year’s deadly riots that followed their client’s imprisonment for contempt of court when he deliberates on whether or not to postpone Zuma’s corruption trial.

Lest this seem too much like a promise, this deceit (for that is our go-to collective noun for lawyers) hastened to add that, as a former president, their client “does not and cannot condone” the eight days of mayhem that left hundreds dead in July. 

Not that he needed to, of course. Daughter Dudu put in a good showing on the family’s behalf, shrieking away on Twitter in a manner that suggested she was not only fanning the flames of unrest but pouring on the petrol as well. 

Interestingly, uBaba’s lawyers decline to condemn the July riots. Instead, they argue that whether or not the violence was warranted by “a sense of public outrage” at the perceived unjust treatment of their client “is a matter of speculation best left to historians or other experts”. 

They are now apparently bothering the Appeal Court in a similar fashion, and have informed its president, Judge Mandisa Maya, that the riots were partly “traceable” to a “perceived” unjust Constitutional Court ruling. They have accordingly urged her to reconsider the dismissal of their client’s latest corruption prosecution challenges. In an application addressed to Maya, Zuma’s attorney, Bethuell Thusini, states: 

“It is no exaggeration to say that this is a matter of utmost public interest involving a threatened failure of justice and potential loss of confidence in our judiciary by Mr Zuma. When such conceived mistakes are committed the citizens (wrongly) feel entitled to resort to self-help. In a related case some months ago, more than 350 South Africans lost their lives in unrest which was, at least in part, traceable to a perceived erroneous and unjust judicial outcome.”

Self-help? That is an interesting way of putting it.

This tactic of threatening personal development should the courts not grant uBaba’s wishes has been with us for a while. It was there in March last year, after the Zondo commission of inquiry into state capture called on the Constitutional Court to jail Zuma for two years, rather than impose a suspended sentence, for failing to cooperate with the commission.

At the time, one of those “historians and other experts”, Professor Susan Booysen, author of Dominance and Decline: The ANC in the Time of Zuma (Wits University Press), suggested that the key to understanding Zuma’s brinkmanship was a conviction that the authorities were too scared to act against him. 

Booysen further told Daily Maverick that Zuma was, in fact, bargaining on the fear of a possible insurrection should he be arrested — even as his popular support appeared to be waning. But, as July’s riots indicated, that shrinking support base would go to extreme lengths to stir up that insurrection.

Writing in an acclaimed new book, The Age of the Strongman: How the Cult of the Leader Threatens Democracy around the World (Bodley Head), Financial Times journalist Gideon Rachman said the riots were “a reminder of the difficulties of sustaining democracy in countries suffering from deep poverty and inequality”. In fact, given the high unemployment, “many people needed little encouragement to join in the ransacking and theft”. 

Zuma appears only fleetingly in Rachman’s work, the bulk of which is devoted to more heavyweight populist heavies, like Vladimir Putin, Xi Jinping, Boris Johnson and Narendra Modi, among others. 

But Rachman does stress that the damage caused by Zuma’s presidency was considerable. When he interviewed Cyril Ramaphosa in London in 2019, the new president told Rachman that the corruption of the Zuma years may have cost the country the equivalent of 10 per cent of its GDP. “It was much bigger than people could have imagined,” Squirrel was quoted as saying. “[The cost] runs way beyond R500-billion.”

Let’s leave aside the nagging thought that, during the years that all this was happening, there wasn’t much in the way of indignant protest from Squirrel. What is of interest, however, is that Zuma reportedly celebrated his 80th birthday on Tuesday in some unnamed hospital. According to Mzwanele Manyi, he has been admitted to this undisclosed facility “for all kinds of tests so doctors are running tests on him”.

His medical condition, readers may recall, is apparently “medical”.

Meanwhile, in a statement on Tuesday, the Jacob Zuma Foundation wished its patron “the most fabulous and happiest” birthday, adding, “His achievements over the many decades are too numerous to mention and all the peace-loving South Africans and the people the world over, have a special place in their hearts for him.”

Oddly, uBaba was well enough to receive the controversial diamond dealer and alleged Ponzi swindler, Louis Liebenberg, at his Nkandla home on Sunday. Perhaps the excitement of receiving a gift of two cows from Liebenberg proved too much for him, and the old toppie had to rest up a bit rather than schlep off to Pietermaritzburg for the day. As for the rest of us, well … maybe there will come a time when Zuma goes to court — and doesn’t return home. 

And what a day that will be for the sprinkling. Toys will be thrown.

Tightrope acts

South Africa continues to tie itself up in interesting knots with regards to its “non-partisan” stance on Russia’s war in Ukraine. It continues to insist that it is maintaining a neutral stance on the conflict — and yet, in the same breath, accuses the UN Security Council of not fulfilling its mandate of ensuring international peace and security. Given that it refuses to budge from this unique position, the decision to once again abstain from casting a vote on a general assembly vote to suspend Russia from the Human Rights Council for committing atrocities against Ukrainian civilians should not have come as a surprise.

Naledi Pandor, the international relations and co-operation minister, appears to be worried that we should be confused by all this when, really, we needn’t be. “An unaligned position,” she told a media briefing last week, “doesn’t mean that that we condone the military intervention of Russia in Ukraine.” It’s just that her government feels that international efforts to do something about the situation will not end the conflict. Far better then to do nothing and just look away instead.

Confused? You needn’t be. But consider how different the situation would be if this was, oh, maybe 50 years back, and the issue before the general assembly was South Africa and apartheid. Perhaps that is the sort of approach that is needed here. We can call it a pencil test of sorts.

Pandor is perhaps of more use when she is lecturing South Africa’s heads of missions on how to behave as the country’s ambassadors. “Your are not the diplomat who will be recalled,” she recently told a cocktail of such worthies (for that is the accepted collective noun). “You are not some diplomat that will be drunk in some foreign street and you are not the diplomat who will forget your purpose.”

This, apparently, a reference to Lassy Chiwayo, the ambassador to Shanghai, China, who was quietly recalled for “health reasons” in 2013 after reports emerged that he was found drunk, walking naked in a street near his office. Lest we judge, remember that it can be quite stressful having to represent the country’s peculiar interests abroad. The self-importance is indeed a heavy cross to bear.