[ANALYSIS] For South Africa to have a future, Zuma must be prosecuted
As it becomes increasingly evident that President Jacob Zuma and his closest supporters are running out of wiggle room, questions are growing about when he will leave office. Tied to this is the deeper question of whether he will ever face prosecution for the wrongdoing he and his hench-people are accused of. But in the middle of all of this is another issue. It’s not necessarily about whether people in the ANC’s top leadership want him to leave, it’s whether they want him to be punished. All of this could have a fundamental impact on our democracy in the long term because of the precedent that would be set if Zuma, after all the damage he has inflicted upon South Africa, gets off scot-free.
Pravin Gordhan was on the offensive on Tuesday night as he shot salvo after salvo at Eskom’s former chief financial officer Anoj Singh. Gordhan didn’t just attack Singh, he dropped bombs all over the place, all aimed at Eskom CFO's collaborators within the ANC. At one point, talking about an email about the Guptas and the famous Oberoi Hotel, he specifically mentioned the names of the sons of newly-elected ANC secretary-general Ace Magashule. Just because he could. But what he, and other MPs, reiterated was that the country was against those involved in State Capture, that everyone knew what had been happening, and that the game was up.
Certainly, the evidence that we have seems to suggest that voters are simply over it all. Talk radio appears to be more optimistic than it has been in years, simply because of the prospect of Zuma leaving office. Polling data from last year showed that Nkosazana Dlamini Zuma’s numbers were similar to those of Zuma. And both sets were terrible, in the low teens. This is surely an indication of how many South African voters feel towards Zuma and State Capture.
But important and significant elements of the ANC seem to live in a different universe. Magashule’s response to questions on Monday about the Guptas was that the fact that his sons worked for them “has never been a secret”. As if that was somehow enough. It wasn’t, of course. The Guptas are Public Enemy Number One, the symbol of everything that is wrong with the ANC and thus the country.
But Magashule is not the only one. Social Development Minister Bathabile Dlamini is also refusing to answer questions properly and acting disrespectfully in another inquiry, chaired by former Judge Bernard Ngoepe, a man who doesn’t take nonsense. She has got herself into the position where Advocate Geoff Budlender asked if she believed there was anything more important in her job than paying out the 17-million grant beneficiaries. She said there was. When he asked her what this was, she claimed not to understand the question. This is someone who refuses to do interviews (that are not paid for, at least...) and believes she has a right to govern. She doesn’t.
If people who agree with her are still in government, and someone like Magashule is able to occupy such an important position in the ANC, what does that mean for the prospects of any punishment for Zuma?
The question of whether Zuma will pay for his sins is caught up in the discussion about if, and when, he will go. He is unlikely to easily give up his grip on the National Prosecuting Authority unless there is some kind of deal. The problem is that there appears to be no provision in our law for any kind of immunity; you can only be pardoned after you are convicted. Somewhere, there is a lawyer staying up at night trying to figure this one out.
The ANC has to face voters next year, and surely someone, somewhere is aware of the mood of the country – that many people will simply not accept a free pass for Zuma. This means there may be an appetite from some for prosecutions to follow; they’ll just have to lie about that now to get him out of office.
But there may also be a powerful lobby which strongly disagrees. They will argue that Zuma should not be punished, in exchange for getting him out of power. But people like Magashule and deputy ANC leader (and Mpumalanga Premier) David Mabuza may also have another motive – presidential aspirations of their own. They may also, like Magashule and Mabuza, have relatively big cupboards stuffed with multiple smallanyana skeletons. They will be keenly aware of how much of an advantage to their aspirations it would be if a nice little precedent were set now. In other words, if they were able to ascend to the top job one day, they would be able to quote this precedent when they are caught, or when they leave office.
It is tempting to argue that any deal to get Zuma out of office quickly is worth it. Anyone who follows the economy will understand that. For the ANC it is important to get him out quickly to clean the slate and have a strong chance of winning the 2019 elections (and attempting to retain Gauteng). But the longer-term damage of such deal could be incalculable. There would be no deterrent to prevent anyone to follow Zuma's ruinous example, knowing full well that things will still be okay at the end. Worse, it could serve to suggest that once you are elected president you are immune from the law, despite the constitutional provision that “all are equal before the law”. This would mean that even the worst kind of people could seek the presidency, hoping for that immunity to escape the consequences of their own wrongdoing.
This also matters when we consider the problem presented by those who helped Zuma get where he is. What will happen to the Matshela Kokos and Mosebenzi Zwanes of the world? If they are not punished, there will also be no deterrent for those who are tempted to aid and abet a corrupt leader in the future.
It is tempting to be caught up in the here and now of our current problems. If, or more likely, when, Zuma goes, there will be some euphoria among many in urban areas, and certainly in the chattering classes. But that should not mean the pressure on the NPA and the police to investigate and punish where necessary should let up. Our future will depend on it.
Stephen Grootes is the senior political correspondent for Eyewitness News and the host of the Midday Report on Talk Radio 702 and 567 CapeTalk. He is the author of 'SA Politics Unspun'. Follow him on Twitter: @StephenGrootes