/Mpumelelo Mkhabela: Zumas last chance to cross back over the firm line

Mpumelelo Mkhabela: Zumas last chance to cross back over the firm line

2019-10-18 06:00

Zuma proved with remarkable consistency his unflinching desire to cross the “firm line” between freedom fighter and politician. He also showed an ability to stubbornly remain on the other side of the “firm line”, with no prospect of crossing back, writes Mpumelelo Mkhabela.

In his memoir, My Own Liberator, former deputy chief justice Dikgang Moseneke makes a compelling point that there is a difference between a freedom fighter and a politician.

“In my mind, there is a firm line between a freedom fighter and a politician. The former is the bearer of revolutionary and moral idealism,” he writes. “The latter, barring a few exceptions, vends the possible and expedient. Often, the expedience degenerates to power and not service, to self-interest and not public good.” 

One of the most remarkable things that have happened in South Africa’s history was when freedom fighters crossed the “firm line” and became the kind of politicians Moseneke refers to. It was the mark of profound personal transformation as they crossed from moral idealism to the other side where power, service and self-interest, not public good, are supreme.

Former president Jacob Zuma symbolises this kind of personal transformation. Here is someone from humble beginnings in Nkandla, with very little education, self-taught in basic literacy in the course of the struggle for freedom during which he was locked up for 10 years on Robben Island. Like many freedom fighters clothed with moral idealism, he suffered a lot for South Africa’s freedoms which are underwritten by the rule of law in a constitutional democracy.

Having had the privilege to serve the public in government for 24 years, he was best placed to demonstrate what the idealism in the struggle was all about. Not everyone who participated in the struggle had the privilege to serve in government. Indeed, if there was any form of idealism that horrible imprisonment on Robben Island and the vicissitudes of exile might have sparked, the democratically elected head of the executive of South Africa from 2009 to 2018 was best placed to show it.

Zuma proved with remarkable consistency his unflinching desire to cross the “firm line” – which he did when he allegedly committed crimes he is now due to stand trial for. He also showed ability to stubbornly remain on the other side of the “firm line” with no prospect of crossing back.

Time and again, he had the opportunity to cross back. He wouldn’t use it. Given the power he exercised while in office, remaining on the self-serving side of the “firm line” came at a cost to the country: from arms deal cover ups to Gupta state capture.

We are still counting the cost to the nation – economic, institutional, national pride, competitiveness and so on. Some believe Zuma has reached the dead-end of his legal strategies and that there are few, if any options, to avoid a trial. The options available are to squeeze further delays.

It’s unlikely that the unanimous Bench in Pietermaritzburg will arrive at a different conclusion if he finally appeals the court’s decision to reject his application to stay his prosecution permanently. That Bench had no room in the first place because it was Zuma who had conceded at the start of the hearing that he had no evidence to prove that the NPA wants to prosecute him because prosecutors hate him.

He also admitted in the Supreme Court of Appeal that dropping the charges against him was irrational. Zuma will be left with the option to petition the very same Supreme Court of Appeal! There is no chance that that court will overturn its previous rulings.

Zuma will eventually try his luck at the Constitutional Court. But no amount of technicalities he might raise will likely detract that court from its solid jurisprudence on corruption, including judgments on Schabir Shaik that has Zuma’s name all over them.

Zuma has a reputation of being a courageous man, a fighter. Well advised, he could profit from this characteristic by immediately ceasing the Stalingrad strategy and confronting his charges head-on in a trial. In so doing, he could speedily allow the rule of law to apply to him like it does to many people accused of all kinds of crimes. He could make a statement that equality before the law, a central part of the rule of law, applies to him. It came as a package with the freedom he fought for.

Whatever the outcomes of the trial, subjecting himself to a trial judge is the only way Zuma can claw back some small ground towards the “firm line”. It’s unlikely he will ultimately cross back. But an attempt to make amends can demonstrate that he is no stranger to the kind of moral idealism of the freedom fighter. After all, the rule of law – and however imperfect its procedures – is what he fought for.

– Mkhabela is a regular columnist for News24.

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