JUDITH FEBRUARY: SA and Jacob Zuma, always at two minutes to midnight


It's been a week of legal wrangling and frustration as the politics of spectacle played out on our television screens. Would Jacob Zuma hand himself over to police or would he have to be arrested?

It was probably wishful thinking to believe that notoriously recalcitrant Zuma would voluntarily submit himself for arrest. This is the same man who has cocked a snook at the judiciary and who was recalled by his party, yet left us all waiting before eventually resigning in the wee hours of a February night in 2018.

The spectacle outside Nkandla this week was designed to threaten the democratic state and its institutions. Repeatedly we were warned that there would be ‘another Marikana’ should Zuma be jailed.

The week also saw Dali Mpofu arguing before Justice Mnguni that the Pietermaritzburg High Court had the jurisdiction to overturn an order of the Constitutional Court. It was a poor and opportunistic display of advocacy for a time such as this. In contrast, Tembeka Ngcukaitobi, acting for the State capture commission, was a study in pithy, intelligent, precedent-based argument.

And so this back and forth continued as Zuma did what he does best, filibuster and sweep up the Nkandla crowds with tales of victimhood and a litany of lies.

As midnight drew closer, however, even Zuma must’ve known his time was up?

In the end though, despite the convoy of cars screeching, it all ended in more whimper than bang as Edward Zuma stood outside Nkandla incoherently rambling on live television, stick in hand. A small crowd of people watched.

To continue the farce, Zuma’s ally-in-chief, Carl Niehaus was suspended from the ANC and arrested while mid-sentence on live television on Thursday afternoon.

Is this the way it ends?

But it’s not quite the end given that Zuma has brought further court action by way of his rescission application in the ConCourt and, of course, there is the not insignificant matter of his corruption trial.

Judgment in the Pietermaritzburg High Court matter has been reserved until Friday 9 July. A legal mixed salad indeed. On the rescission application, surely Zuma cannot seek to gain from it what he might have achieved via an appeal, had he been able to make one?

This former President who repeatedly said he was unafraid of prison predictably pushed our civil procedure to the limits by making this application. Surely by now he is a scurrilous or vexatious litigant?

Zuma has also said that he was never in contempt but actually left the room to take his medication, ‘“… I was scheduled to take my medication and had left the commission premises to do that. My lawyer was asked to convey to the chairperson that I had left the premises on the understanding that I was entitled to leave.”

Quite how foolish does Zuma think we all are to believe what is frankly an abuse of court processes?

Yet, we awoke on Thursday 8 July with our democracy bruised but decidedly intact.

A former president is in prison. There has been no blood shed and no US-style January 6 insurrection. Our Parliament is not barricaded, nor are the Union Buildings. The Constitution holds.

As Acting Chief Justice (ACJ) Khampepe delivered her judgment in Zuma’s contempt of court case last week, she was drawing a clear line in the sand.

Khampepe ACJ, on behalf of the majority of the ConCourt, did not mince her words in an elegantly penned judgment. She went to great lengths to express judicial displeasure at the egregious attempts by Zuma to undermine the authority of the highest court in the land.

As she put it, “It cannot be gainsaid that the longer that Mr Zuma’s recalcitrance is allowed to sit in the light, and heat, of day, so the threat faced by the rule of law and the administration of justice, curdles… his contempt and contumacy is rebukeable in the strongest sense”. This was a powerful moment in judicial history.

Predictably, however, the judgment was met with the noise and clamour that we have long expected when anything involving Zuma happens. Immediately the Zuma spin factory got to work.

In the end, the bluster was just that and Zuma is in prison at the Estcourt Correctional Centre.

The sense of heightened drama has been fed by the media who gave us a blow-by-blow account of every word coming from Nkandla and the supporters who spewed populist slogans and incited violence. That the ANC cancelled its weekend NEC meeting added to the sense of crisis. Its NEC released a statement on Tuesday afternoon which was clear and powerful, yet was almost immediately undermined by Jessie Duarte at the media briefing when she said the ‘ANC loves President Zuma’ and hopes his ConCourt challenge succeeds. The ANC, as divided and unreliable as ever.

But in the end, the ANC, along with everyone else in the country, knew that there was only one outcome that would satisfy South Africans. Because either the rule of law holds, or it does not. There is no middle road.

All of this goes far beyond Zuma, but to the heart of the kind of country we want to be. For now, our constitutional democracy has passed a difficult test at a pivotal moment. Yet, there is work to be done in strengthening our institutions and in truly fulfilling the promise of the Constitution for millions of South Africans who live on the margins.

We are far more than Zuma and his personal legal travails. The efforts to rebuild our institutions after nearly a decade of state capture may appear slow, but progress is being made.

Let us continue, however, like sentinels, to keep watch over our democracy. In the end, it is the only bulwark against impunity.

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