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Constitutional contempt: When the rule of law works, former presidents go to jail


Wayne Duvenage is a businessman and entrepreneur turned civil activist. Following former positions as CEO of AVIS and President of SA Vehicle Renting and Leasing Association, Duvenage has headed the Organisation Undoing Tax Abuse since its inception in 2012.

The Constitutional Court judgment that sentenced Jacob Zuma to 15 months of imprisonment was history in the making, and a significant step forward in rebuilding civil society’s confidence that the rule of law is firmly on track in South Africa.

Some (but not many) have believed for years that, given our strong Constitution, if the rule of law was meaningfully applied in South Africa, Jacob Zuma would go to jail. That day has finally arrived and with it a resounding message about the strength and independence of our justice system. 

Following years of Zuma’s illusive appearances in court, many were moved by Acting Chief Justice Sisi Khampepe’s words that flowed from the Constitutional Court judgment. 

“Contempt of court proceedings exist to protect the rule of law and the authority of the judiciary. 

“The vigour with which Mr Zuma is peddling his disdain of this court and the judicial process carries the further risk that he will inspire or incite others to similarly defy this court, the judicial process and the rule of law.”

Today, the nation stands a little taller and somewhat prouder. Certainly, the nation is a lot more confident about the river of accountability that appears to be flowing. 

Today I smile, having engaged with many who emphatically believed that Zuma would never be sentenced to imprisonment. Many believed the ruling party did not have the courage to allow its (almost) two-term president to be shackled and clad in orange. And who can blame them, after witnessing nearly two decades of Stalingrad tactics to keep Lady Justice at bay? Zuma’s supporters believed he was untouchable. Those beliefs have now been shattered by a scathing judgment from South Africa’s apex court.   

What’s more, Zuma will appear before court in July for his corruption trial as a convicted prisoner. The celebration by many is evident from the thousands of posts and comments on social media about Zuma’s new status. 

But don’t think for one minute that his supporters will let this rest. They will march and break all the pandemic rules of social distancing. They will rant and rave, displaying outrage and negative energy. Alas for them, it will all be in vain and even though the police’s crowd control measures might be tested here and there, they will largely succeed in doing what must be done. There will be no anarchy. Within the next week or so, Zuma will go to jail.

Over the coming days we should not be fooled by appearances from Zuma’s radical cabal. The hordes will be bussed in and they will play to the media. The reality, however, is that Zuma’s popularity is waning and his supporter base is dwindling. In a couple of weeks they will move on, believing that the state has dealt their master an unfair blow. They will lose any rational debate, and my only advice to them is to read the judgment objectively. It’s straightforward and simple and law, and it applies to everyone.

Many believed that should the judgment go against Zuma the prison sentence would be light and possibly suspended, together with a meaningless fine. Instead, and somewhat surprisingly so, the judgment was bold in its conviction and condemnation of Zuma’s conduct, carefully justifying the 15-month term of incarceration and the urgency thereof. 

It was also scathing, with statements including: “[Zuma’s] contempt of court demonstrates that it is part of a deliberate attack on this court’s authority”; “[Zuma] has wilfully defied this court’s order in CCT 295/20”; “Never before has the judicial process been so threatened”; and: “The damage being caused by his ongoing assaults on the integrity of the judicial process cannot be cured by an order down the line. It must be stopped now.”

This is what the rule of law looks like, something that Zuma denied millions of citizens from witnessing for almost a decade of his tenure as president. Compelling was the belief held by many that Zuma would continue to evade justice, and several months ago the vast majority would have scoffed at the idea of Zuma ever facing prison-time, or that Ace Magashule could be suspended by the ruling party and charged for crimes he allegedly committed. 

Personally, I don’t believe there will be a medical pardon for Zuma. I also don’t believe President Cyril Ramaphosa will exercise any presidential powers that he may have to let Zuma off the hook. This was a self-inflicted wound and Zuma’s own worst enemy is none other than himself.  

However, it is the longer prison sentences that I yearn for. Zuma’s role in the Arms Deal and his brazen conduct as the kingpin of State Capture, along with the billions of rands lost to undeserving recipients, can never be forgiven. Those are the judgments that I keep the good bottles of Champagne on ice for. Those and the many other cases that will flow through the National Prosecuting Authority, following mountains of evidence gathered at the Zondo Commission and elsewhere. 

For now, we celebrate and for the next few days we will smile at the whinging and whining that Zuma’s spin doctors will sprout. We will smile as we see through the deceit of Zuma’s populist comments, such as: “I am not afraid of jail… I’ve been there before”, and: “The establishment has betrayed me.” 

The majority know very well that Zuma would prefer to be sipping tea, chuckling and chomping with his chums at Nkandla. DM


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  • William Kelly says:

    Good bottles of champagne! Indeed! 🙂

  • District Six says:

    Mr Zuma’s contempt is not only for the law but also for the citizens of this country. I’ll bet he has given his last parliamentary guffaws at us. From here on our, expect the victim card.

  • Helen Swingler says:

    No, Mr Zuma. The establishment did not fail you. You did that yourself.

  • John Bestwick says:

    Regrettably Arthur Fraser is Head of Corrections so he will undoubtedly see to as much comfort as is possible. Zuma will probably go straight to Single Cell or Hospital Wing and get immediate benefits not in line with regulatiins i.e., cellphone,tv,new mattress and blankets etc. Definitely not the treatment your common criminal receives. Probably not even Orange Suit. But hey better he is in jail than still conniving,thieving and corrupting. Maybe a break from his showerhead female sorties might give him some time to reflect on Kweszi and his sheer folly.

  • sally pickering says:

    Don’t plead age now Zuma, you’ve put off this day for at least 10 years with your evasive tactics. Now is your turn finally to find out if orange jumpsuits suit you.

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