Jacob Zuma's 'what if' question
Over the last few days I've been struggling with some of my emotions around President Jacob Zuma and the 'spy tapes'. It's not that I've been particularly surprised by the fact that the recordings are now going to be given to the Democratic Alliance (DA). Or that the final Supreme Court of Appeals ruling revealed so much about how the National Prosecuting Authority has been "captured" by Zuma. Rather, it's about how I would actually feel, and what could actually happen, should the DA be successful in its bid to have the corruption charges against Zuma reinstated.
The other day a journalist friend, someone of my generation and experience, sent me an SMS: "Doesn't it make you feel good that virtually our entire journalistic careers have revolved around the travails of one JZ, both pre-office and now?… Some journalists got to report on Churchill, FDR, Nelson Mandela. We got Zuma." Of course, my colleague is right. My career, and the way in which I analyse our politics, has been dominated by Jacob Zuma.
My first big assignment as a reporter, and certainly my first in the political space, was the trial of Schabir Shaik. Which, you may remember, found him guilty of paying a bribe to Zuma. My second was the Zuma rape trial.
Recently, I've found myself thinking back to the auditorium in the National Prosecuting Authority (NPA) headquarters in Silverton, 6 April 2009. I was sitting in the front row, next to a then un-published Mandy Wiener, while the then NPA-acting head Mokotedi Mpshe announced that he was going to withdraw the charges against the then president of the ANC, Mr Zuma. While the decision had already been leaked several days before, it was still, and is still, incredibly startling. The other day, Business Day's Franny Rabkin reminded us that during that announcement and while referring to the political conspiracy the Zuma spy Tapes are supposed to confirm, Mpshe said: "I need to state upfront that we could not find anything with regard to (those factors) that militate against a continuation of the prosecution". That would seem almost certain that once the DA's court case aimed at overturning that decision gets rolling, the result is likely to be in their favour.
If that actually happens, that would mean that the man who has been our president for a full term, and who would be well into his second, should never have risen to that office. It would mean that he is not just unsuitable, but, if found guilty, would actually be a criminal. As you would expect from someone who sat through the Shaik trial, this would make me very angry indeed. The court found then (in a ruling confirmed by both the Supreme Court of Appeals and then the Constitutional Court, and all sixteen judges who found Shaik guilty) that Shaik paid money to Zuma with the intent to change the way in which Zuma acted. The court then also found that Zuma did indeed act in this way.
It was only because of the strange decisions taken by Bulelani Ngcuka (who was one of those with a starring role in the Zuma spy tapes) that Zuma was not charged with Shaik in the first place. Instead, he famously decided not to prosecute Zuma "despite prima facie evidence" of his guilt. And, it's important to be fair to Zuma here: Ngcuka clearly had a political intent with some of his actions. But that doesn't mean there wasn't a case against Zuma.
Right then: enough of the history. What of the possible future?
If the DA won, it would mean that Zuma only escaped this case through political manipulation. It would mean the very foundation of our society as a nation has been undermined to the core. If we cannot trust our legal system to protect us, then it's going to be everyone for themselves. With all the rioting and anarchy that would bring, and has already brought.
It's at this point that my blood starts to boil. It would mean that all of the trauma of the last few years - The Spear, Waterkloof, the tapes themselves, the persistent fears that our judiciary is being manipulated, Secrecy Bill, and of course Nkandla, Nkandla and Nkandla - could all have been avoided. There would be no laughing behind our hands whenever our head of state claimed that his government would "lead the fight against corruption". There would have been none of the awful anger and language between the African National Congress (ANC) and the Public Protector and other institutions set up to protect us from ourselves.
The ANC itself could have been a very different organisation from what it is now. The South Africa Communist Party (SACP) may even in fact have been really a communist party, rather than a lobby group devoted to protecting one man from the consequences of his own actions. Perhaps even the Congress of South African Trade Unions (Cosatu) could have been working to help workers, rather than tying itself in knots. Maybe we would even have managed to avoid the Marikana massacre.
And my country, the place where I live and work, where my children are growing up, where I will grow old and die, could perhaps have been a very different place. A much better place.
It makes me want to throw up with anger. It makes me want to punch someone and then something, and then someone again - in the face - with fury.
As a normally restrained person, this anger that I feel makes me wonder how other people will react. Would many South Africans feel as I might? Might they shrug their shoulders, might they think that actually it's not that serious?
I really don't know.
But I do think it's important to mention how much the political landscape has changed in the last five years. In 2009 there was a tsunami that was growing in power around Zuma. He was the coming man, with all the possible patronage that would bring. And there was huge frustration around Thabo Mbeki, the only person, it seemed, who had the power to stop him. Now that tsunami has crested; much of its power is spent.
And more importantly, Zuma himself has already dragged the ANC through so much. A post-Nkandla Zuma is surely weaker than he was back in 2009.
So then, what would happen in the days after a judge deciding that the charges must be reinstated? Luthuli House could go into the kind of attack mode it's been in against the Public Protector recently. But that would be risky. Surely even Gwede Mantashe would have to realise that South Africans are running out of patience? Imagine if it came just before local government elections. Would the ANC really feel that campaigning with Zuma as its symbol again would be wise? This is where my thinking gets rather wild, but could the situation even lead to such anger that it completely skews the results, with the ANC suddenly finding itself losing votes more quickly than anyone has ever contemplated up until this point?
Then there's the succession debate. One of the problems with the wishful thinking that many people indulge in when they claim that Zuma may not see out his second term, is that should that happen, it could be giving the presidency to Cyril Ramaphosa on a plate. Some in the ANC are bound to have a problem with that. Even if their current postal code is for a suburb in Addis Ababa. So then surely there would always be some opposition to such a "recall/resignation/health issue".
There is bound to be a whole lot of political action between now and the DA having its day in court, never mind endless appeals after. But the fact is that we may be getting closer to a judicial finding that in fact our whole legal system was manipulated to protect just one man.
We've known it for years. Still, it makes me sick.
Stephen Grootes is host of the Midday Report on Talk Radio 702 and 567 CapeTalk, and the senior political correspondent for Eyewitness News . Follow him on Twitter: @StephenGrootes
This column first appeared on Daily Maverick.