A South African Court's Ruling Against Jacob Zuma Offers Hope for the Rule of Law

Former South African President Zuma supporters descend on Nkandla
Former South African President Zuma supporters descend on Nkandla
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A group of Jacob Zuma supporters walking to the Zuma homestead on July 01, 2021 in Nkandla, South Africa. This comes after the former president was found guilty of contempt of court by the Constitutional Court of South Africa. Credit - Darren Stewart/Gallo Images

In any country, the central political question is “what is the role of the law?” Does it exist to protect every individual from abuses of power? Or does it exist mainly to protect those who have power?

That’s a test that South Africans understand well. A landmark court decision announced this week gives many South Africans reassurance that their governing institutions work. But this story isn’t over.

What happened

On June 29, the country’s constitutional court ruled that former president Jacob Zuma must serve 15 months in prison for failing to appear before a commission investigating corruption during Zuma’s presidency (2009-2018). Zuma not only rejected the commission’s authority and refused to answer charges or mount a defense, he also wrote a 21-page letter to the chief justice of the constitutional court that charged that the corruption commission was “established to destroy the work that I did when I served my country as President.”

He then essentially dared the court to jail him: “…my imprisonment would become the soil on which future struggles for a judiciary that sees itself as a servant of the Constitution and the people rather than an instrument for advancing dominant political narratives.” That sounded to many ears like a threat that any judgment against him would trigger social unrest and perhaps violence in the country.

The court then ordered Zuma to surrender to authorities by July 4. The former president has launched an appeal to the same court and refuses to surrender to authorities. He argues that sending a 79-year-old man to prison during a pandemic amounts to a death sentence. Supporters have surrounded his home and vow to protect him. Authorities are bracing for protests in other parts of the country in coming days. Warnings of a constitutional and political crisis from core Zuma supporters within the so-called Radical Economic Transformation faction of the governing party, the African National Congress (ANC), have bolstered the former president’s defiance.

But the justices didn’t simply find Zuma in contempt of court; they accused him of trying to “destroy the rule of law.” He’s unlikely to avoid jail.

The case(s) against Zuma

Jacob Zuma was once a hero of the struggle against apartheid in South Africa. Like Nelson Mandela, Zuma was imprisoned for years on Robben Island, near Cape Town. Two years after his release in 1973, he went into exile, living in a number of African countries. But he continued his work for the ANC, then an underground apartheid resistance organization. Once the ANC became legalized in 1990, Zuma returned to South Africa and his native region of KwaZulu Natal to help establish a post-apartheid peace there.

But controversy has followed Zuma throughout much of his political career. In 2005, he was charged with accepting bribes as part of a large arms deal while serving as South Africa’s deputy president in 1999. In response, then-president Thabo Mbeki fired him. In 2006, he was acquitted of raping a woman in a case that revealed he had no idea how AIDS was transmitted in a country battling an HIV epidemic.

Zuma is an undeniably charismatic politician. After wresting control of the ANC from former boss Mbeki, in 2007, he was elected South Africa’s president in 2009. As president, he faced more charges of corruption and abuse of power. In 2016, South Africa’s supreme court ruled that Zuma had illegally used more than $15 million in public funds on his private home. He drew additional ridicule after insisting that the addition of a swimming pool was needed to protect the house in case of fire. Zuma has also long been dogged by charges of influence peddling involving the wealthy Gupta family.

After the ANC suffered embarrassing losses in municipal election n 2016, it became clear that Zuma was losing strength within the party. Facing a revolt within the ANC and an impending vote of no-confidence, Zuma resigned the presidency in February 2018. He was replaced by Cyril Ramaphosa, who vowed to fight corruption, both in the government and within the party.

Consequences of corruption

Official corruption has cost a great deal over the years. Public money diverted to private use deprived South Africa of the funding for infrastructure needed to create jobs and spark growth and the social safety net protections that are crucial for alleviating poverty. It also undermined the country’s reputation for governance and financial management needed to secure foreign investment. South Africa has scored poorly in global corruption rankings for many years. When Zuma stepped down in 2018, he left the country with high wage inequality, high unemployment, low global competitiveness and rising uncertainty.

Much of the media coverage that follows the court’s order of Zuma’s surrender will (rightly) center on the strength of South Africa’s governing institutions. In particular, the constitutional court has shown that it will hold even the country’s most powerful men accountable before the law. President Ramaphosa has proven so far he will not intervene in the work of the court for the sake of avoiding a political fight with Zuma, his bitter ANC rival.

What to watch

Here’s a good sample of South African domestic news coverage from state-broadcaster SABC, the South African Broadcasting Corporation, of the court ruling and the risk of confrontation and violence. This clip demonstrates the maturity of South African democracy via an interview aired on the state-broadcaster in which the host acknowledges Zuma’s historic importance as a “freedom fighter” against white rule and an analyst sharply criticizes both Zuma and the ANC, the party which has ruled South Africa since the end of apartheid.