FIKILE-NTSIKELELO MOYA: The greatest gift Zuma has given the country


It’s tempting to write about former President Jacob Zuma’s much-anticipated appearance at the Zondo commission of inquiry into state capture. In many ways, it was vintage Zuma – full of bluster and self-pity without providing a thread of evidence to support his bombastic claims.

It was also like reading followers of long-dead soothsayers make connections with vague statements to prove that one or other event predicted a contemporary event or personality.

As I said, it is tempting. But I would rather spend my energy on what I hope is the lasting import of Zuma’s appearance regardless.

This week’s appearance of the former head of state must mark one of the high points of our imperfect democratic enterprise, as well as a moment of critical reflection.

To have an immediate former head of state appear before a judge to account for allegations of his conduct when he was in charge of the country. It is especially a big deal on the African continent littered with ‘Big Men’ who treat the state as a personal fiefdom and the state purse as their personal savings account.

The message is clear to all other future heads of government: state power is to be held in trust and once you do with it as you please, you will be made to account.

It is not cynical to say all this will only be convincing once we have someone in “orange overalls” – to use the quaint South Africanism. Indeed, criminal acts must be punished in the same way as other criminal acts are – with jail time.

Building a culture of accountability must be seen as an ongoing project. It is also tempting to say that after 25 years, we should by now know how to be a proper democracy with all its checks and balances. We know, however, that we keep finding we have something new to learn.

Ideally, all those who head government (be it nationally, provincially or locally) should be upstanding men and women. As we have seen too many times here and elsewhere, power has a tendency of separating people from their own ethical constitutions.

So, in a twisted kind of way, Zuma’s propensity for bad decisions, to say nothing about apparent misfortune of often being associated with shady characters, should in time create the framework for how those entrusted with the public power and purse are expected to behave and parade as friends. Also critically, how they can be removed before causing even greater harm to the republic.

Apart from seeing how easy it is for country and party to not be above electing a self-serving, smooth talker who cannot even function as a leader, the greatest gift Zuma has given the country and his party is that it must get over its sense of exceptionalism.

In him, we see the pits we could reach. In the commission he himself set up – under duress, one must add – is that everything is possible and should be prepared for.

If South Africa does not set up the institutions to anticipate worse-case scenarios such as the Zuma presidency, then Msholozi’s twisted mind and logic would have caused pain that was not worth it.

He would have been a good crisis that was allowed to go to waste.

Fikile-Ntsikelelo Moya is an independent journalist and former editor of The Mercury and The Witness.