After the British and their many allies had defeated Erwin Rommel at the second Battle of Alamein in October and November 1942, Winston Churchill famously commented that this was not the “beginning of the end but perhaps the end of the beginning”.
The imprisonment last week of Jacob Zuma is of course a victory, however belated, for the principle of equality before the law. It is also a victory for all those whose persistence finally succeeded in bringing the former president to justice. Let us further hope that Mr Zuma’s punishment makes all of our rulers wary of themselves being jailed for contempt of court.
It would nevertheless be over-optimistic to see this important and symbolic event as possibly the “end of the beginning”. When Mr Zuma became president in 2009, this columnist was hopeful enough to ask whether he would be able to prevent this country from becoming a “failing state”. That the question could even be posed shows that South African was sliding downwards even before Mr Zuma became president. He, of course, made things worse. And since Cyril Ramaphosa took over in 2018, the downward slide has continued.
To those urging Mr Ramaphosa to speed up reform, or at least embark upon it, the retort from many journalists, academics, and business leaders was that he always “played a long game”. They were right, of course, as the tragically tardy pace of vaccination in South Africa shows – while Mr Ramaphosa, like a typical Third World victim, busies himself by railing against “vaccine nationalism”.
President Ramaphosa gets invited to G7 summit conferences and the like, but he must be one of the most over-rated “leaders” in the world today. This is not because his policies are wrong, although most of them are, but because his government fails to carry out some of the most basic functions of any government. These include preserving law and order, running an efficient public sector, and providing essential services.
As president and party boss Mr Ramaphosa presides over a vast number of ministers, their deputies, provincial executives, and local councillors, along with their support staff of public servants, not to mention officials of state-owned entities. If numbers translated into efficiency, we should have one of the best-run countries on the planet. But the reverse is true.