Zuma in prison is a start, not a destination

William Saunderson-Meyer says the ANC's commitment to constitutionalism remains threadbare


Jailing Jacob is a good start to ending the moral rot in our body politic.

But we are in danger of drawing the wrong lessons from Zuma’s dramatic minute-to-midnight jailing for contempt of court. It is not the victory for law and order, and constitutional democracy, that it is being portrayed as.

The former president has for more than a decade been criticised for undermining the Constitution. The many harsh comments regarding his contempt for the law, his abuse of legal procedure, and his calculated fomenting of mob anger towards judicial officers, have been entirely justified

Him now condescending to be imprisoned — after a week-long standoff and less than an hour before the police would, despite their every effort to not get involved, have to arrest him — is however no proof of a sudden commitment on the part of the African National Congress to constitutional order in preference to populist chaos. It is nothing of the sort.

For Zuma’s despicable behaviour is no aberration. He has behaved as he does because he — and the many other ANC cadres who daily and with impunity, display their contempt of the rule of law — have a powerful enabler. That enabler is the ANC itself.

Both as a political party and as a government, the ANC has adhered to the Constitution, as shown in its neglect of citizens’ wellbeing and rights, only when it suits it. Or when it knows it cannot get away with doing otherwise, because there is an array of activist citizen groups standing by to force it to do so, by recourse to the courts.

It is the ANC, while never tiring of claiming exaggerated credit for birthing the “most enlightened constitution in the world”, that at heart fails to comprehend the implications of the document it helped create. For too many people in the ANC, the Constitution is not a binding, sacrosanct contract between the governors and the governed that imposes ethical restraints on those who hold power.___STEADY_PAYWALL___

Rather, it’s a convenient cover for the long march of the organisation and its allies towards the goal of the national democratic revolution. If and when it doesn’t suit that goal, ditch it, is the tripartite alliance’s ethos.

The failure of the ANC to understand fully what a constitution means can be discerned in many of the revealing comments made by the party during the Zuma impasse.

When Zuma deigned to place himself in police custody on Wednesday night, there was a collective sigh of relief in the party for being let off the hook. Afterwards, spokesperson Pule Mabe said the ANC wanted to call on its members “to remain calm and respect the decision taken by [Zuma] to abide by the rulings of the court”.

In other words, if you’re a former ANC leader, you have a choice as to whether or not you will abide by the law.

When party members supporting Zuma earlier gathered in their hundreds outside his home, fired guns, waved spears and clubs, and threatened violence against judges and police alike, they contravened several laws, including those governing lockdown, firearms, incitement and intimidation. The police did nothing, explaining that they wanted to prevent the killing of “women and children”.

Again, the ANC response is revealing of what drives its decisions. At first, Deputy Secretary-General Jesse Duarte denied that there had been anything illegal about what happened at Nkandla. It took a jeering public response and a meeting of the party’s national executive committee to change the ANC’s official tune.

She now assured South African that the dastardly perpetrators of Nkandla lawlessness would be brought to book. The ANC, Duarte said solemnly, recognised the gravity of the situation and had ordered urgent action against those responsible for the burning of ANC regalia, incitement of violence, defiance of COVID-19 regulations, and other acts of ill-discipline.

Not by having law enforcement act against a bunch of thugs but instead by threatening some badly behaved party members with a slap on the wrist from an ANC disciplinary committee. These were serious violations of the ANC’s constitution and code of conduct, Duarte said.

The party was particularly concerned, said Duarte, that members of the now-disbanded UmKhonto we Sizwe Military Veterans Association had threatened violence that could have led to a loss of life or serious injuries, by acting in a “counter-revolutionary” manner “akin to … extreme rightwing elements”.

“When words such as ‘human shields’ were used, we sat up and we took note. Those are words used by terrorists, internationally. Human shields – it’s a worrisome thing when words like that are used,” Duarte said.

Let’s not even go down the ANC rabbit hole of how an organisation that’s been “disbanded” can have members. Nor the absurdity of pretending that these former members can feasibly be disciplined by an entity that no longer legally exists.

Suffice it to say, if these armed international counter-revolutionary terrorists threatening the taking of hostages to use as human shields had indeed been right wingers — belonging, say, to AfriForum — a spell in the Naughty Corner would not have been the ANC or law enforcement response.

None of this is surprising. Police Minister Bheki Cele, in an earlier lockdown so keen to be the strong arm of the law that he led armed patrols of otherwise empty beaches to catch bikini-clad blondes sunbathing, did everything possible to avoid having to arrest Zuma.

On the flimsy pretext that Zuma’s last-minute pleas to the Constitutional Court afforded him immunity in the interim, Cele even wrote to the Court for “clarification” of the arrest order. It was only upon receiving advice from senior counsel that he would himself face contempt of court charges if he didn’t go ahead, that he complied. And we are supposed to believe that this reveals the ANC’s heartfelt commitment to the Constitution?

If you want to assess the ANC commitment to the rule of law, measure it against the clamour that’s already taking place within the party, just days into Zuma’s incarceration, calling for his release. A former minister in Thabo Mbeki’s cabinet, Frank Chikane, says Zuma should get a pardon if he “admits he made mistakes”.

Mistakes? The only mistake Zuma will ever admit to is being caught.

Other party leaders are lobbying for early release on compassionate grounds. Apparently, we should be concerned about the vulnerability to Covid of the 79-year-old man who a week ago was — without a mask — cavorting as the up-close cheerleader to a spittle-spewing mob baying for the head of Justice Sisi Khampepe

Give that man a Pfizer, I say. Make it a double.

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