Donald Trump has just become the first former president in US history to be criminally indicted. This despite the fact that America is almost 250 years old and has had 45 different men (yes, they have all been men) as president. The fact that it has taken so long says less about Trump than it does about the way in which the justice system is skewed in favour of powerful men.
The presidency of Warren Harding, for example, was tainted by “hush money to mistresses, secret payments for an out-of-wedlock child and far-reaching corruption” but he was never charged. Richard Nixon, meanwhile, was forced to resign after Watergate broke, but he was granted a “full, free, and absolute pardon” by his successor Gerald Ford. And don’t get me started on all the US presidents who defended slavery long after it was fashionable to do so…
Which got me thinking about South Africa and the poor record of almost all of our leaders. As someone who has co-written one book about the 350-year history of flagrant corruption in South Africa and another about South Africa’s long, deurmekaar and bloody trudge to democracy, this is a topic that’s all too familiar.
Considering our past, you would think we could fill an entire wing of Pollsmoor with the ghosts of former leaders. But we too have only ever indicted two ex-presidents (PW Botha and Jacob Zuma) and only one of these has ever spent even a night in jail. Zuma’s decades-long efforts to dodge the justice system have been infuriating to watch (here’s looking at you, Dali Mpofu). But at least he donned the orange overalls. Other former top dogs, however, have literally got away with murder.
The Rhodes to hell
Cecil John Rhodes harboured so many skeletons he could have filled the Big Hole of Kimberley, never mind a measly closet. In present-day Zimbabwe he personally encouraged his troopers to commit genocide against the Ndebele, and he rubbed his hands with glee when they did. (His exact words were: “Kill all you can.”) With the Jameson Raid, meanwhile, Rhodes bankrolled a bloody coup attempt in Paul Kruger’s independent Republic.
In the Cape Colony, meanwhile, Rhodes’s De Beers Mining Company “perfected” the “native” compound. As Antony Thomas explains: “Over 11,000 African labourers were housed 20–25 to a room in corrugated iron barracks, set out in a square and surrounded by a 12-foot fence, which was patrolled by company police with dogs. The whole area was roofed over by double mesh wire netting and guard towers with searchlights placed at each corner.”
Before being herded back into the compounds after each work shift, African miners were forced to take their clothes off and be subjected to horrific and invasive body searches which probed “every orifice”. When a miner’s contract came to an end, they were stripped naked and placed in solitary confinement in a tin hut for 10 days. Their hands were chained together into fingerless leather gloves, and they were fed castor oil. Their excrement was then inspected daily in case they had swallowed a diamond.
Rhodes (who, like Trump, was also an election denier) did have to defend himself in front of judges and commissions on several occasions. In one case, he was accused of bribing voters. Rhodes’s testimony in front of judges at the election petition hearing showed he was an early exponent of the Stalingrad Defence.
When asked to provide the accounts showing how much he’d spent on his campaign, he claimed that he did not know where they were. It was later discovered that either he or one of his election agents had destroyed them. And he seemed to forget a great deal of his life history, only miraculously recalling the details when prompted with hard evidence. The court, somewhat curiously, found him innocent, although it did claim that he had come “perilously close” to the act of bribery.
Best of the rest
Rhodes was by no means the only Anglo-Saxon South African leader to break the law. Sir George Yonge, Lord Charles Somerset, Sir Harry Smith and many other colonial governors all thought the law did not apply to them. While several of these men faced commissions of inquiry, none of them was ever criminally charged.
From the 1960s onwards, the United Nations repeatedly declared apartheid a “crime against humanity” but no apartheid leader ever faced a day in court for these crimes. In fact, people like DF Malan, JG Strijdom and Hendrik Verwoerd were all afforded state funerals and remembered as heroes.
It is perhaps unsurprising that the many crimes these people committed against the African people went unpunished by the apartheid courts. The case of BJ Vorster is more curious. Vorster was at the centre of the Information Scandal in the 1970s (South Africa’s greatest corruption scandal before the post-apartheid Arms Deal) but despite evidence implicating him in a whole raft of illegalities, no charges were ever brought against him. Bizarrely, the dominee who presided over his funeral remembered him as being “utterly trustworthy”.
Only two apartheid leaders lived to see South Africa become a multiracial democracy, but neither was given a particularly hard time by the new dispensation. Granted, PW Botha was criminally charged for failing to appear at the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (the charges were extremely similar to those Zuma was eventually convicted on), but he was only given a suspended prison sentence and his entire conviction was ultimately overturned on appeal.
FW de Klerk, meanwhile, was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for his efforts. Both men were offered state funerals but – credit where credit is due – their families declined.
A (scary) closing thought
While it’s tempting to feel like the world is going to hell in a handbasket (and perhaps we are), the cases of Trump and Zuma suggest otherwise. Granted, the wheels of justice have turned painfully slowly in both cases, but there is still a chance that both men will soon be found guilty of some pretty serious crimes.
Are we finally entering an age of accountability? Or will Trump flip the charges to his advantage and get re-elected in 2024? Zuma, at least, seems unlikely to make a full political comeback… DM