Zuma and Trump share anti-constitutional instincts

William Saunderson-Meyer says there is one big difference between the two men


President Jacob Zuma would have been thrilled with the good old natter on the phone with President Donald Trump on Monday. 

After all, high political office can be an unhappy place. What prior to election is imagined to be a palace is swiftly revealed to be a prison. Without are howling mobs of detractors. Within are scheming hordes of backstabbers.

And the two men, who on the face of it are very different from one another, actually share a lot. Both are viscerally loathed by a significant proportion of their electorates. Both have to endure unprecedented levels of scorn and ridicule.

They also share an indifference bordering upon antipathy towards the constitutions of their respective countries. Trump has just trampled on the United States’ constitution with an arbitrary ban on travellers from seven countries, seemingly chosen at random. 

The giggly Zuma holds the edge, however. With the benefit of many years to hone his anti-judicial résumé, he can boast the distinction of having survived a ruling by the Constitutional Court of being in breach of his oath of office. And he will doubtless also survive last week’s unconstitutional deployment of soldiers to the precincts of Parliament.

Trump must surely be envious. He would like nothing better than to have Delta Force rappelling from the dome of the House of Congress, or parachuting into the plaza outside the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals. That’d be yoooj, as The Donald would say.

But there is a significant difference between the two men. That is the backdrop against which they experiment with their extra-judicial shenanigans. 

Americans have an almost religious reverence for a founding document that for more than two-and-a-quarter centuries has curbed executive overreach. While Trump may rail against a judiciary that is “biased”, “political” and less competent than “a bad high school student”, it is unthinkable that, at the end of the day, he will not comply with its rulings.

In contrast, while we South Africans have a palpable enthusiasm for our constitution, this does not extend to the government that supposedly is its guardian. The African National Congress, or more specifically many politicians in the Zuma administration and officials that report to them, treat it with barely disguised contempt. 

Theirs is a cynically instrumental approach. It’s to laud and enforce laws and judgments that benefit the Zuma administration and disadvantage its political opponents, and to disparage and flout those that have the opposite effect.

That Zuma neither resigned nor was impeached, despite the scathing censure of a full Bench of the Constitutional Court, is evidence enough. Worse is that such Zimbabwe-style thumbing of the nose at the judiciary has permeated government. 

There have been scores of cases where public servants have ignored legal injunctions. Sometimes this has been because of ignorance, but often enough it is because they knew they had the tacit backing of their ministers and ANC politicians.

In the past fortnight this has become a grave problem. The police have targeted Paul O’Sullivan – whistleblower, freelance investigator, and general thorn bush up the backside of the corrupt but politically well connected – in a sustained campaign of harassment and intimidation.

Last year O’Sullivan was with much fanfare arrested at OR Tambo on an essentially minor passport-related charge. After his umpteenth court appearance and on the basis that the charges were “frivolous and vexatious” O’Sullivan obtained an order from Gauteng Deputy Judge President Aubrey Ledwaba forbidding the SA Police Service or the National Prosecuting Authority from arresting him without a summons, or alternatively only after alerting him to their intentions at least 48 hours beforehand.

In defiance of that order, a posse of at least 17 plainclothes police officers in eight vehicles descended upon O’Sullivan on Monday night as he was leaving his attorneys’ offices and threw him in jail. After an urgent application by his lawyers, the court ordered that he be released immediately and that the state should comply with the earlier order.

Similarly outrageous is the harassment of O’Sullivan’s legal representative. Last Friday Sarah-Jane Trent was arrested by police officers armed with automatic rifles and dressed in tactical response gear, and driven around for hours, to thwart any bail application. She spent the weekend in prison. 

Although Trent is an employee of O’Sullivan, she is also an admitted attorney and as such an officer of the court. The Law Society of SA has been disgracefully silent regarding these abuses by the organs of state security, which cut to nub of the respect and protection that are critical to the rule of law. Such silence is not surprising, though. The LSSA is generally a pusillanimous beast.

These tactics are eerily reminiscent of what the apartheid government used against its opponents. When the security might of the state is wheeled out against individuals who dare speak out against corruption or injustice, we should all be very afraid.

No doubt Trump would approve, though. 

Follow WSM on Twitter @TheJaundicedEye