Opinionista Camaren Peter 11 July 2021

The imprisonment of Jacob Zuma is a failure of our politics, not our institutions

Jacob Zuma will be a more powerful figure inside prison than he is outside it. That is because it is easier to construct heroic myths about a person who is not in the public eye, but resides in the public imagination. The network that has converged around the ex-president presents an existential threat to the ANC, one that the party must defeat from within to preserve the integrity of the once-great liberation movement.

Camaren Peter

Professor Camaren Peter is an Associate Professor at UCT’s Graduate School of Business and is Director and Executive Head of the Centre for Analytics and Behavioural Change. Opinions expressed here are his own.

The stand that Jacob Zuma took against the Constitutional Court was always going to end adversely. His direct challenge to the court’s authority signalled that an age-old agenda of access to political power is in play; that the “Zuma Incorporated” network within the ANC is not willing to give up power without a fight.

Tuesday, 29 June 2021 was a significant day. It was a day when what we heard hurt us, even though many of us had desired this symbolic act which affirmed that nobody is above the law and that despite whatever power imbalances may prevail in our country, the law would ultimately prevail.

This was the import of what we witnessed when the Constitutional Court — the highest legal authority in South Africa — laid down a judgment that held the former president in contempt and sentenced him to 15 months in jail. And despite all the threats of instability and violence that followed the judgment, the ex-president is now incarcerated. He is the first prisoner of the Constitutional Court and a prisoner of the country he once led.

This is an act of justice that will resonate across the continent, particularly in sub-Saharan Africa. In the heady early days of liberation, South Africa carried the continent’s hopes for establishing a strong democratic state with uncompromised institutions that would inspire the dream of an African renaissance.

The powerful symbolism of the Constitutional Court’s judgment is a giant leap forward for the continent, not just South Africa.

The primary reason for this is that, despite what Zuma and his allies may argue, this is not a politically motivated conviction. It is simply an institutional conviction. Zuma’s headstrong, direct confrontation with the state precipitated an inevitable showdown, one that would pit him against the very institutions that he was once charged with preserving. Of these, none is more significant than the apex court of the judicial system, of which he has fallen afoul more than once.

The judicial system is an institution of institutions. In this respect, it holds great power. It is charged with establishing and upholding some of the core principles through which our society is governed. And in that respect, it is the key vehicle through which the constitutional values — those that the struggle for liberation was fought for — become enacted in our society. It was entirely predictable that any individual who engages in a direct, headlong confrontation with the institution that is core to the democratic identity of the country, would ultimately find themselves at the losing end of the battle.

You cannot just show the justice system the middle finger in a functional democracy. It is only in a compromised democracy, where the independence of a key state institution is undermined, that an individual can exert power and subvert democratic process.  

Perhaps Zuma was under the impression that he could pressure other arms of the state into not enforcing the order, in the same way as he escaped accountability when the National Prosecuting Authority (NPA) dropped its charges against him in 2009. Alternatively, he may have been operating under the assumption that creating political pressure through the threat of violence and instability would be enough to render the Constitutional Court toothless in the face of political power; that a political settlement could be reached to grant him amnesty or a pardon.

The fact is, it should never have come to this. What we need to acknowledge is that the imprisonment of Zuma is primarily a failure of our politics and not a failure of our institutions. Our institutions are doing what they are supposed to do. It is our politics that have failed us by undermining the public good. And there are many dimensions to this failure. This is plain to anyone who would care to observe carefully, with some measure of distance from the political theatre that has accompanied the rise and fall of Jacob Zuma.

The rank opportunism that has infected our political realm is primarily responsible for the situation we face today. Whether governing party or opposition, there is scant regard for enacting a politics that truly serves the public good. The prevailing belief in current-day politics is that what matters most is to win at all costs. The focus is primarily on raw political power and not on what is best for society. And that has produced a diabolical political realm, one characterised by a governing party that is heavily compromised from within, as well as a series of opposition parties that appeal to the basest of populist invective and opportunistic rhetoric, fragmenting the electorate in a crude gambit to secure votes.

It is the equivalent of throwing a bomb into the political realm and hoping that those who survive fall into your ranks and proffer their loyalty because they see no other viable option. This is antithetical to the foundational premise of democracy, which ideally offers up an affirmative choice of representation in political office. There simply is no viable choice among political parties in South Africa, and that is a scary prospect. We are left with a choice of voting for the best-worst option.   

We have witnessed a devastating and long-lasting attack on our key institutions. Some have prevailed while others have suffered, but the fundamental institutions have stood their ground, and they must win in this moment. While they can suffer losses at other moments, this moment is a particularly critical one, one in which their failure would bear consequences too ghastly to contemplate. And so, even though it was a national day of embarrassment when Zuma was sentenced to jail by the Constitutional Court for contempt, it was nonetheless a victory for the institutions of state and equality before the law.

The reason Zuma went into direct confrontation with the institutions, however, deserves deeper contemplation. He had a range of softer, more legitimate options open to him. Yet he chose to pursue a path in direct conflict with the institutions he once swore to protect and uphold, mobilising conspiracist invective and paranoiac gaslighting to put a spin on his travails.

This game of smoke and mirrors is simply an attempt to control the narrative to ensure that those who have thrown their lot in with him can still access political power through control of the ANC. It is a cynical attempt to exert power through the obtuse form of 21st-century politics that has come to dominate political discourse around the world; one that finds expression through “social” media — the sewerage systems of public sentiment.

While it is unlikely that reputable institutions would side with the former president, the state of politics in South Africa means that his messaging finds fertile ground among those who have lost faith in the establishment or are on the fence.

The argument that Jacob Zuma is himself a victim or sacrificial lamb who is merely being martyred for what others have done and continue to do, is not just an ethically and morally defunct argument, it is irrelevant. The real question is how to repair society and rescue our key institutions from the damage they have incurred due to the ANC’s failure to self-regulate from within, and opposition parties’ dismal failures to regulate from without. But this is scarcely an awareness that prevails today. Today’s political realm is fraught with intrigues and manipulations aimed at dividing the public. It is a slugfest, not a robust debate.

Whoever controls the narrative controls access to political power, so that has become the primary objective of political contestation, whether between or within political parties. In the case of Zuma, it is simply ensuring that his network secures political power so that this conviction — and all the momentum that has been built to counter State Capture — ultimately amounts to nothing. That is the challenge we face.

Zuma’s world is one of intrigue and conspiracy where his enemies have conspired to ruin his reputation and subject him to victimisation. Yet it is Zuma who has left a long list of victims behind him. Many of those who stood by him when he came to power, despite exercising all manner of intellectual and rhetorical gymnastics to justify his fitness to occupy the presidency, have survived his leadership.

There were high-profile supporters — notably Julius Malema and Zwelinzima Vavi — who expressed their willingness to “kill for Jacob Zuma” alongside a willingness to die for him. But there were many more less visible people who supported and facilitated his rise to power. And he used and abused their investment during his time in power, rendering them spectators to a disaster that they had enabled.

This is a bait and switch that the citizenry is steadily growing aware of, and it is foreseeable that they will ultimately separate truth from fiction in the political realm that prevails today. Historically, South Africans have shown that they will resist political power that tramples over their rights and liberties and threatens daily survival. And it has long been baked into the nation that the state is central to the functioning of South African society.

Hence, direct attacks on the institutions of state are unlikely to be accepted without significant push-back from society itself. Indeed, the lack of nationwide support for Zuma in real terms may well indicate that many are simply fed up with political corruption in South Africa. The declining support for the ANC would seem to indicate this much.

Nonetheless, Zuma will be a more powerful figure inside prison than he is outside it. That is because it is easier to construct heroic myths about a person who is not in the public eye, but resides in the public imagination. Such a figure’s absence serves as a mannequin that can be dressed up to serve any end. Hence, we should guard against misplaced triumphalism and hubris.

In the popular narrative that saw his rise to power, Zuma was presented as a champion of the poor, a leader who would brazenly empower the marginal majority. And in a society characterised by such high levels of inequality, which delineates along racial lines, this narrative remains a compelling drawcard.

The network that has converged around the ex-president presents an existential threat to the ANC, one that the ANC must defeat from within to preserve the integrity of the once-great liberation movement that inspired such profound hope for a greater future for the continent. This will only be possible if the balance of power within the ANC lies with those who remain uncompromised by the networks of corruption that have infected the body of the ANC, from its senior leadership to its local branches. 

If this proves not to be the case, the drawn-out distraction that Zuma — and the corrupt political elites that have converged as his support base — represents, might well prove to be the undoing of the oldest liberation party in Africa. It might profit from electoral confidence in the short term due to a momentary sense of relief that the country is returning to the original track it was on, but any deviations or disruptions to this restoration will likely raise their hackles and bring up their defences again.

The softly-softly approach that the current state president has employed, while admirable in its restraint and willingness to empower the institutions of the state to execute their mandates without political interference, might — in the end — not work out so well for the ANC itself. The ANC needed to be able to clean house from within, but it has failed to do so unequivocally, and it is unlikely that it will be forgiven for this failing in future. DM

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  • I am growing a little weary of the characterisation of the ‘Zuma issue’ as the “real question is how to repair society and rescue our key institutions from the damage they have incurred due to the ANC’s failure to self-regulate from within”. Let’s assume that the ANC had been united enough to take disciplinary action against and expel JZ from the party; would this have in any way changed his defiant stance towards the Zondo Commission and the Courts? I think not.

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