Defend Truth


How Zuma is using a populist playbook to assault democracy, and how Ramaphosa’s silence will betray South Africa


Judith February is executive officer: Freedom Under Law.

If Jacob Zuma defies the Zondo Commission and the Constitutional Court, as he indicated he will, such an act of grave impunity will be a direct assault on our democracy. Should the ANC and President Cyril Ramaphosa remain silent, their silence will have made them complicit in the final betrayal of the people.


“Let’s give former president Jacob Zuma time and space, people are counselling him, all of us need time to reflect and think. In life it is always best to think about matters carefully and deeply before coming to a rushed conclusion.” President Cyril Ramaphosa: Soweto, Friday, 5 February 2021. 

The rule of law remains axiomatic to any functioning constitutional democracy.

One of the most defining moments of Nelson Mandela’s presidency was the moment he took the stand in the case of the President of the RSA and Others v South African Rugby Football Union & Others in 1999.

In 1998, President Mandela appointed a commission to investigate allegations of racism, nepotism and corruption against Sarfu. Sarfu approached the court in order to stop the work of the commission. Judge William de Villiers saw fit to subpoena the president himself to give evidence as to why he ordered the probe. This sparked much debate about whether the president should have to defend his every decision in court. Mandela chose to do so in this case and was subjected to a lengthy cross-examination by Sarfu’s legal counsel, Advocate Mike Maritz SC. Justice De Villiers eventually ruled in favour of Sarfu, setting aside the government’s inquiry and called Mandela “an unsatisfactory witness”.

This is an important bit of legal history, especially in the year when we mark the 25th anniversary of the adoption of the final Constitution. 

That Mandela was prepared to place himself in such a position of scrutiny before a court was a singular act of leadership, possibly the most important of his presidency. It not only showed his commitment to the rule of law and the Constitution, but was also a visible reminder that no one, not even the president of the republic, was above the law or above being held to account for his actions. 

Mandela recognised that the alternative to a constitutional democracy was rule by the whim of the powerful, which was anathema to the struggle for justice. His was an action aimed at embedding a culture of constitutionalism during a period of intense political and social change. Even though the final Constitution was the product of negotiations and public participation on a scale South Africa had not experienced before, Mandela knew only too well that a Constitution is only really as strong as the ability or inclination of those in power to submit to it. 

This bit of history is particularly apposite this week when former President Jacob Zuma declared that he would not adhere to the ConCourt ruling stating that he is compelled to appear before the Zondo Commission of Inquiry into State Capture. He alleges the commission was designed purely to ensure that he is the sad scapegoat. Moreover, and in what is perhaps more sinister, he accuses the ConCourt of political bias. It’s all a conspiracy and the courts are acting in concert with dark forces to ensure only one thing: the demise of Zuma. In this narrative, Zuma becomes first victim and then martyr. We have been here before with Zuma – remember his rape trial? Zuma is predictably using every obvious trick in the populist’s playbook to stay out of prison.  

The litmus test for the Zondo Commission and, by implication, for our constitutional order is obvious, should Zuma fail to appear before the commission on 15 February. 

Aiding and abetting Zuma is ANC Secretary-General Ace Magashule, who similarly sees no wrong in Zuma flouting the Constitution. There is truly no honour among thieves. 

Joining the unseemly fray is the King of Spectacle, EFF leader Julius Malema. Doubtless, Malema sees some cheap political gain out of the cup of tea he had with Zuma at Nkandla. This is the same Malema who in 2008 cried, “We are prepared to take up arms and kill for Zuma” but then did the about-turn to “Pay back the money!”, creating years of mayhem in our democratic Parliament through a combination of thuggery and bullying on the House floor during State of the Nation Addresses. 

Malema’s actions should come as no surprise however. He has always been without principle and himself faces serious allegations of corruption in relation to the VBS matter. But in a country where shame is a rare commodity and impunity reigns, this remains a mere detail. Zuma has predictably gathered the desperate and dodgy within our political landscape in an attempt to evade justice. It’s the same playbook, just a different year. 

But we cannot forget that the marks of Zuma’s constitutional vandalism are writ large in every aspect of South African public life. There is an overwhelming body of evidence in the public domain which details the looting of state coffers, the wrecking of our public institutions by his cronies and the careless disregard for the rule of law. During her investigations into the development of his Nkandla home, Zuma consistently questioned Public Protector Thuli Madonsela’s recommendations in relation to Nkandla and her authority to even make such recommendations. By his very actions he consistently undermined that constitutionally mandated body. 

One, therefore, must wonder what Mandela would have made of the current ANC leadership’s attacks on the judiciary and the constitution itself? Sadly, however, these anti-constitutional utterances from some within the ANC are not new. This is also worth recalling if only to indicate the degradation of the ANC itself and the hollow shell it has become. 

Let us cast our minds back to 2015 when the high court in Pretoria ruled that our government’s failure to arrest Sudanese president Omar al-Bashir was unconstitutional. By the time the judgment was handed down, Omar had already left the country, yet it was important to establish the principle that the state is not above the Constitution. It is worth remembering that then secretary-general Gwede Mantashe launched a scathing attack on the courts, citing them as “problematic” and further declared that there were “some sections” of the court system driven by a desire to “create chaos for governance” in South Africa. His deputy Jessie Duarte followed suit with similar criticisms.

Going even further back to 2012, the ANC’s Ngoako Ramatlhodi launched a scathing attack on the judiciary while delivering a lecture in honour of ANC president AB Xuma. Ramatlhodi accused the judiciary of seeking to undermine the executive.

Let us make no mistake about the political moment we are in and the stark choices we face. Let us also not be side-tracked by the politics of spectacle and Zuma and Malema swapping tea invites. Populists are well-versed in diversion, after all. We must not be fooled. 

It is now incumbent on the ANC as a political party to hold Magashule, Zuma and those who make anti-constitutional utterances to account in the strongest possible way. It is also incumbent on President Ramaphosa to make clear that he himself, as the head of this constitutional state, believes that no one is above the law. Now is not the time for Ramaphosa to demur or kick such a fundamental issue to touch in his usual mild-mannered way. It is the time for him to defend our constitutional order. His words in Soweto suggest that Ramaphosa is doing the usual political dance and hoping for an ANC solution to appease Zuma and coax him into doing the right thing. The problem with that strategy is that it makes Ramaphosa look weak on the rule of law, forever trying to reconcile the irreconcilable within his party. 

If he continues with this strategy, or to sugar-coat his words to avoid bleeding support within the ANC, he will have acquiesced to the dangerous populists and charlatans within his party. Ramaphosa, as one of the architects of our Constitution, should know better than most that what is at stake is the very essence of our democracy and the pillars of accountability on which it is built. The Zuma years saw the hollowing out of our democratic institutions which are now being repurposed, with great difficulty. As South Africa fights the economic and social fall-out of the Covid-19 pandemic, it is clear that it can only do so within a framework the constitution provides. Ramaphosa’s appeasement is even more irksome as we beg and borrow for vaccine cash, with the coffers bare. 

In the unanimous judgment of the Constitutional Court in the Nkandla matter, Chief Justice Mogoeng Mogoeng spoke clearly about the kind of state the Constitution envisaged.

He starts by outlining how South Africa adopted “accountability, the rule of law, and the supremacy of the Constitution”. He goes on to state how this applies to public representatives, the president in particular, when he says, “For this reason, public office-bearers ignore their constitutional obligations at their peril. This is so because constitutionalism, accountability and the rule of law constitute the sharp and mighty sword that stands ready to chop the ugly head of impunity off its stiffened neck.”

The words of the Chief Justice stand as a stark reminder of the bulwark the judiciary formed against our constitutional order being completely destroyed by Zuma and his corrupt cronies. 

This is a moment, not only for Ramaphosa and the feckless ANC he leads but also for all of us as citizens, to demand that the reckless and unaccountable, even – perhaps especially – a former head of state, be held to account. 

Anything less would be a betrayal of Madiba and the founding fathers and mothers of our constitutional democracy. To be sure, there have been several acts of betrayal, but let us not underestimate the gravity of this moment. We cannot avert our gaze. We need, as Teju Cole has said elsewhere, “to [give] things their right names” when speaking truth to power. 

So plainly put, if Zuma defies the Zondo Commission and the ConCourt such an act of grave impunity will be a direct assault on our democracy.  Should the ANC and President Ramaphosa remain silent, their silence will have made them complicit in the final betrayal of the people. 

And then will we, the people, stand firm to protect and defend the Constitution and march in its defence should that moment arise? That is perhaps the rather more salient question than what the ANC or Ramaphosa will do. After all, any Constitution is as strong as, not only the ability and willingness of those in power to adhere to it, but also the willingness of citizens to defend it. DM


Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • Len Suransky says:

    A superb summary of what has gone before in the Zuma Stalingrading dance; the Malema opportunist shilly shallying from ‘die for Zuma’ to ‘pay back the money’ to ‘tea for two, and two for tea’. More importantly a timely warning that Zuma must not be allowed to flout a unanimous Constitutional court finding that he must appear and plead before Zondo. February is correct: Ramaphosa no longer has any refuge left to equivocate and procrastinate. He or his officers must now act. Zuma must be arrested, and may the chips fall where they must.

  • Peter Doble says:

    So we have arrived at the crossroads – democracy or despotism. The next chapter in the country’s history is about to be writ large. “….a country where shame is a rare commodity and impunity reigns.” A fine epitaph.

  • Marissa Moore says:

    I wonder if it is less about defending our constitution and more about preventing a martyrdom. The assumption that Zuma wants to avoid jail, is just that, an assumption.

  • Jane Crankshaw says:

    Well written Ms February!
    Julius wants votes…Zuma wants to ride into the sunset with his plunder. It’s as simple as that. Neither of them is concerned about South Africa and it’s people – and ***** the Constitution!
    Ace is the key here…always is in a game of win or lose! It’s just a game to them all…may they rot in hell.

  • Sergio CPT says:

    Brilliant as usual, Judith! We dare not fail as a country and a democracy – if we do not finally draw a line in the sand, we are doomed! All these evil and Godless scumbags, looters and enablers, starting with Zuma, Magashule, Zwane, Gigaba, Bongo, Mahlobo etc. etc. must be charged, the proceeds of their theft forfeited and jailed for many years. Lets not forget about callous opportunist that is Malema etc. This racist and deceitful rabble-rouser must also account for his looting. Enough of this charade!! SA must deal with these thieves and move forward.

  • Coen Gous says:

    Brilliant article Judith…..and how true your comments!

  • Tanneke Bosma says:

    Fantastic article ! Thank you

  • District Six says:

    “You’re not paranoid. Everybody really does hate you.” I’m pretty sure all South Africans are with me on that. Probably the only people who don’t, are those who have pillage in common. The justice system needs to go for broke with Zuma if only because if he gets away with it, it will embolden the pushback. Attacks on the judiciary, and judges in particular, will increase. This is why Magashule feels emboldened in his public utterances: the ConCourt has already indicated that the Commission has treated Zuma with deference, unfairly, as some special case. Perhaps this is understandable – we don’t need a martyr, but the ConCourt has drawn a line in the sand. The President (the real one) does not have to get involved, which in any event will become an accusation that he is using the judiciary in a political fight. Ramaphosa is correct to stay out of it. The onus is on the Zondo Commission to act, and to act swiftly and clearly “without fear or favour”. We will also have to break the stranglehold that parties have on our political system so that democracy can be extended. Whilst a corrupt party holds such sway over every aspect of our politics, we will never overcome corruption and those who will use it for their own financial gain.

    • Claude Koenig says:

      Absolutely on the button Craig – if Zondo does not act promptly and forcefully, our justice system is a farce and our constitution not worth the paper on which it is written.

  • Thomas Coggin says:

    “And then will we, the people, stand firm to protect and defend the Constitution and march in its defence should that moment arise?”

    This is a cynical and anxious view, but I fear we are too busy being entertained by the spectacle of JZ enjoying tea with Malema and Chabad de la Fontaine telling Ramaphosa to emigrate on a beach in Fishhoek. There is very little appreciation for the institutions of constitutionalism; if there were, we would recognise the (slow) work done by CR in undoing the damage wrought in the Zuma years, and that institution-building is a slog requiring patience. Instead, we flit from one hashtag to the next, limiting the agora to the fickle confines of the twitterverse.

    I agree wholeheartedly with your arguments, but I also think CR is aware of the perception that he is in a precarious space politically. Appeasement comes at many unknown costs, but biding one’s time until the right moment has its benefits too. I really hope the historically agile negotiator within CR remains as nimble and effective as it might have been once upon a time.

  • Andrew Wright says:

    This is a good summary of the crisis Zuma et al article creating but one massive issue is not tackled or included. The culture of the ‘party’ – it demands absolute loyalty (in theory only) but actually substitutes unity in reality. The appearance of unity is critical to everything the party says & does. Those who have benefitted from ANC misrule cannot put the country before party. Although I think that Ramaphosa is a good, hard working man it is clear that his first loyalties lie in that direction & always will.

  • stan garrun Garrun says:

    Such a fine article. So ominous “the final betrayal. But most of all – what will we the people of South Africa do? That is the salient question – so much more important than what the ANC or Ramaphosa will do, to defend the constitution. If Concourt and Zondo are defied, and this is again papered over, will we take to the streets, myself included? I am not holding my breath.

  • david clegg clegg says:

    Excellent! But we must not lose sight of the reality that at the root of Zuma et al’s lack of respect for the constitution, is the ANC’s deeply rooted ideological conflation of State and Party and its commitment to control the levers of power. That is a toxic brew which, by necessity, sidelines the constitution if it gets in the way. I had been hoping to see evidence of recognition by Ramaphosa of this problem and some attempt at re-education and reform of the faithful, but it seems to be a bridge too far.

  • Abel Appel says:

    Ms February knocks the nail on its head. It is blatantly obvious to everyone in South Africa other than the supporters and fellow corrupt cabal of Jacob Zuma, that nobody is above the law and no-one can ignore the Constitution. As Head of the State, President is firstly beholden to the Constitution then to the ANC. If he does not impose himself on this vital matter then it is time for him to leave. Let someone else step up to the plate to get our country out of the mess the ANC looters have got us into. I did not vote for this kind of rubbish on 27 April 1994. The ANC has been found wanting and cannot be allowed to continue to make South Africa a banana republic.

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