A very dangerous proposal

Why Jacob Zuma shouldn't get amnesty and the presidency

It seems that the threats of violence and disruption if the Zuma trial goes ahead, made by Julius Malema and others, are beginning to have an insidious effect on our public discourse. Indeed, there are signs that our intelligentsia is in the early stages of nervous collapse. This is finding expression in the argument that pressing ahead with the criminal trial of Jacob Zuma poses too great a threat to South Africa's political stability.

In an article which appeared in Beeld on Saturday the writer and journalist Max du Preez argued that the impending trial was casting a "long, dark shadow" and destabilising our national life. The first step then was to get the uncertainty caused by the case out the way. Since the legal process was so far advanced, and could not be taken back or undone without a severe blow to the legal system, Du Preez suggested that some kind of plea bargain deal could be struck.

Zuma would acknowledge his culpability in return for a slap on the wrist, and could then go on to take up the state presidency. The hope would be that Zuma and the ANC could then start placing some distance between themselves and the radicals in the SACP, COSATU and the Youth League.

Although Du Preez says that it must be made clear that this compromise is not the result of the threats of Malema and Vavi two sentences later he basically concedes that it is. The alternative to such a capitulation, du Preez argues, is to accept the pain of further instability and even a return to the political violence of the early 1990s.

(As significantly, on the same day Jeremy Cronin - one of the most decent and thoughtful intellectuals within the ANC - told an SACP meeting in Kwa-Zulu Natal that "Next year the ANC, supported by the alliance will win the election. The next president [of South Africa] will be Jacob Zuma." In reference to Malema's comment that Zuma would rule from prison, if need be, Cronin added "That president will not be wearing orange.")

There are basically two reasons why this view is misguided. The first is that one of the main tests of Zuma's ultimate fitness for office, post-Polokwane, was always going to be how he (and his allies) responded to his upcoming criminal trial.

In the 14th Century Chinese play, the Circle of Chalk, two widows of a wealthy man lay claim to be the mother of his young son and only heir. The child is placed by the Emperor within a chalk circle between the two women, and they are ordered to pull him between them. The true mother does not want to hurt her child, and so refuses.

Zuma owes both his current freedom and his elevated position to the fact that we still have an independent judiciary in this country (the ANC policy of cadre deployment notwithstanding). The South African taxpayer has also provided a bottomless well of funding to allow his lawyers to pursue and exhaust every avenue of appeal possible. If tried and convicted a future ANC government could grant him a pardon, if they so wished, so he is hardly likely to spend any time in jail (or to suffer materially). What a conviction would preclude - legally, politically, and morally - is his ascent to the South African presidency.

If Zuma had any love for the rule of law he would not have tolerated the attacks by his subordinates on the judiciary or the threats of violent disruption and murder made on his behalf. Instead, he has allowed certain creatures within the ANC to go ahead and prepare to tear our constitutional state apart, limb from limb, in order to clear his path to power. This, far more than the corruption allegations themselves, is what proves his unworthiness for the highest office.

The second reason is this proposal would open the way to far greater evils than those which it ostensibly seeks to avoid. This sort of reasoning led one of the world's most civilised nations to passively submit to one of the most barbarous regimes of all time. It also flies in the face of some of the most pressing warnings of the great philosophers.

In the Politics Aristotle noted, "In all well-attempered governments there is nothing which should be more jealously maintained than the spirit of obedience to law." In the Discourses Niccolò Machiavelli wrote that "there can be no worse example in a republic than to make a law and not to observe it; the more so when it is disregarded by the very parties who made it." In a passage in that work that has pressing relevance for South Africa today Machiavelli observed:

"No well-ordered republic should ever cancel the crimes of its citizens by their merits; but having established rewards for good actions and penalties for evil ones, and having rewarded a citizen for good conduct who afterwards commits a wrong, he should be chastised for that without regard to his previous merits. And a state that properly observes this principle will long enjoy its liberty; but if otherwise, it will speedily come to ruin. For if a citizen who has rendered some eminent service to the state should add to the reputation and influence which he has thereby acquired the confident audacity of being able to commit any wrong without fear of punishment, he will in a little while become so insolent and overbearing as to put an end to all power of the law."

To subscribe to Politicsweb-by-email click here