JUDITH FEBRUARY: Jacob Zuma is in contempt of us all
Deputy Chief Justice Raymond Zondo is a man who understands struggle.
It was hard not to be moved by the interview he gave to the Judicial Services Commission in 2018 for the position of Deputy Chief Justice.
In it Zondo described his long road to the bench and the benefactor, a Mr Moosa, who helped him through law school. Towards the end of the interview, Zondo said, holding back tears, recalling his benefactor’s words to him: “Do unto others what I’ve done to you.” Fighting back the tears, he said: “In my own small way I try to do that.”
It was a heart-wrenching moment watching Zondo wipe away the tears recollecting the events decades before. It tells us something about the measure of the man.
On Zondo’s shoulders now rest the unenviable task of getting to the bottom of the Zuma era state capture allegations.
The Zondo Commission of Inquiry, ironically set up by former President Jacob Zuma, in the wake of former Public Protector Thuli Madonsela’s preliminary report into state capture, has had the proverbial long and winding road.
South Africans are tired of it, in part because every day in different ways we are tasked to deal with the consequences of capture while the perpetrators walk free.
Last week we witnessed the legal spectacle of Zuma’s counsel making the case for Judge Zondo’s recusal. It was an embarrassing display from Muzi Sikhakhane who really ought to have known better.
But Zuma has always had the ‘hired gun’ lawyers prepared to argue even on the thinnest of margins. In fact, last week was vintage Zuma. For a man who has always wanted his day in court, Zuma has done everything possible to avoid it.
It’s not hard to figure out why, of course, as witness after witness gives ever-more damning testimony of corruption and state capture which happened on Zuma’s watch.
The state has been broken, the kitty is bare and most of all, our society has been broken by Zuma, the broken man.
And so, as Zuma sought to denigrate Zondo and misrepresent their relationship, it was a low point, even for Zuma and his band of opportunistic lawyers.
Perhaps the nadir was Zuma walking out of the commission, in contempt of it, in contempt of democracy, the rule of law and finally in contempt of us all.
But none of this should come as any surprise. Zuma’s entire presidency was an exercise in constitutional vandalism. Again and again he showed a careless disregard for South Africans.
He did so right to the minute he made his announcement in February 2018 to step down from the Presidency. Then, he kept the country waiting until nearly midnight. Disregard was his currency and evasion was always going to be the card he played before the Zondo Commission.
Zondo therefore had no choice but to lay a criminal complaint against Zuma for absconding from the commission’s proceedings.
It was nevertheless a pitiful moment which highlighted the contrasts in men. One could not help but take oneself back to Zondo’s story and the humility with which he had conducted himself in that JSC interview.
But we have also seen the rightful outrage of Zondo and sometimes flashes of anger at the extent to which the state had been captured.
On the opposite end stood Zuma, coming to his tawdry, graceless end.
The criminal complaint was important if only to assert the crucial constitutional principle that no one is above the law.
When former President Nelson Mandela was called to testify in court on whether he had “applied his mind” when setting up a commission of inquiry into SA Rugby, many were outraged that Mandela, so revered, was called to testify. Yet he did so without complaint.
That Mandela was prepared to place himself in such a position of scrutiny was a singular act of leadership. It not only showed his commitment to the rule of law and the Constitution, but was also a visible reminder that no one – not even the president – is above the law.
In a week where we have had to contemplate Zuma’s contempt for the Zondo Commission and the rule of law, Mandela’s example is more than instructive. Mandela’s actions stand as an example of rectitude during this time of widespread impunity.
South Africa is at a point of social and economic crisis, the worst of which is still to come. COVID-19 has exposed our collective vulnerability as we face headwinds of every kind.
This calls for restraint and a bold economic vision, even in this desperate time. It also calls for us to keep faith with the democracy we wrought and the rule of law which is intrinsic to it.
Yet, the Zondo Commission has shown us that there are precious few honest actors around who might be able to lead so boldly. Most of the governing ANC elected representatives have had their snouts at the trough in one way or another.
Despite all of this, the Zondo Commission remains important to ensure the radical transparency our society requires. South Africans need to understand how we arrived at this point and more importantly, how we prevent getting to the nadir once more.
Holding Zuma to account is an important part of the repurposing of this democracy and its institutions.
Judith February is a lawyer, governance specialist and Visiting Fellow at the Wits School of Governance. She is the author of 'Turning and turning: exploring the complexities of South Africa’s democracy'. Follow her on Twitter: @judith_february