[OPINION] Jacob Zuma to be prosecuted. Finally

Friday afternoon was as good a time as any to make an important announcement.

As National Director of Public Prosecutions, Shaun Abrahams said he had decided to prosecute former President Jacob Zuma on charges of corruption, fraud, money laundering, tax evasion and racketeering, South Africa breathed a sigh of relief. Like Brazil’s Lula, Zuma would need to account before a court of law. The charges are directly related to the multi-billion rand arms deal and bribes allegedly paid to Zuma as a result of the deal.

The matter has a very long history. Former NDPP Mokotedi Mpshe had famously dropped the charges against Zuma in 2009 on the grounds that there was a political conspiracy against Zuma. This finding was based on the so-called Spy Tapes in which conversations were recorded between the NPA’s Leonard McCarthy and then head Bulelani Ngcuka.

That decision paved the way for Zuma to ascend to the Presidency unfettered. South Africa has paid a high price for the Zuma presidency, marked by corruption, maladministration and state capture.

The Democratic Alliance, however, doggedly pursued the matter through the courts.

Finally, in October last year the Supreme Court of Appeal dismissed Zuma and the National Prosecuting Authority (NPA)’s appeal against the High Court judgment which declared invalid the decision to drop charges of corruption, money laundering and racketeering against Zuma. In fact, the SCA found that the decision to drop the charges was ‘irrational’. Given the SCA’s finding, it left little room for Abrahams to do anything other than continue the prosecution against Zuma. Of course, Zuma continued to make representations to the NPA that dragged the matter out considerably. On Friday afternoon, Abrahams announced that Zuma’s representations had been ‘unsuccessful.’ Finally.

For someone who has always said he wanted his day in court, Zuma did everything possible to evade accountability - all at our cost.

Yet, something about this all feels rather expedient. Given Abrahams’ repeated attempts to shield Zuma, so much so that he garnered the nickname ‘Shaun the Sheep’, one can be forgiven for being cynical about Abrahams’ change of heart. Abrahams has, at the very least, brought the NPA into disrepute given his stonewalling and repeated appeals in order to avoid making a decision regarding Zuma.

But Nasrec happened. Suddenly, there seemed to be some movement within the NPA until this latest decision. If Abrahams thought that his credibility could be salvaged by the announcement to pursue Zuma, then he is sorely mistaken. It has taken us years to get to this point and only after protracted litigation and then a change of political masters. The NPA needs to exercise its prosecuting powers without fear, favour or prejudice and not in a selective manner depending on which way the political winds blow. For this reason, Abrahams is unfit to hold the position of NDPP. His credibility lies in tatters. If he had any pride he would resign, but that is not the way of those who hold public office in South Africa.

Abrahams’ announcement is the first step in a very long process. This prosecution against Zuma needs to be carefully executed by state advocates with the highest level of skill, independent-mindedness and integrity. There is no doubt that any trial will drag out, but the important point for now is that Zuma has been charged and there is a chance for the wheels of justice to turn, even if slowly.

And so the arms deal itself has come full circle. It’s been 18 years since Patricia de Lille first arrived at Parliament wearing a sweater saying, ‘the arms deal is out of my hands.’ De Lille then raised the spectre of corruption in the deal. Other civil society organisations like Idasa and the Institute for Security Studies raised alarm bells after a botched parliamentary investigation in 2001. It cost former ANC MP Andrew Feinstein his job, lest we forget. Chair of the Standing Committee on Public Accounts, the IFP’s Gavin Woods, was similarly thrown under the proverbial bus.

In his ascent to power Zuma left many casualties in his wake.

This is a therefore a moment in which he will finally be held to account for some of his misdeeds.

This trial is a tribute to investigative journalists and South African civil society who doggedly pursued corruption flowing from the arms deal. It is also a tribute to our independent courts that made brave decisions when it mattered.

May it serve as a stark reminder to those in power now, that this is a country where the media, civil society and ordinary citizens will ensure that the rule of law prevails, even against the most powerful.

Judith February is based at the Institute for Security Studies. Follow her on Twitter: @judith_february