/The inevitable diminishing of Jacob Zuma

The inevitable diminishing of Jacob Zuma

Former president Jacob Zuma was never going to remain the all-powerful and omnipresent political figure that he thought, and many South Africans feared, he would be. His appearance this week in the KwaZulu-Natal High Court in Pietermaritzburg was just downright sad. Not even Carl Niehaus was there, writes Pieter du Toit.

When former president Jacob Zuma appeared outside the KwaZulu-Natal High Court in Pietermaritzburg on Tuesday after proceedings in his corruption matter were postponed to next year for pretrial arrangements, he didn’t cut the figure of the invincible autocrat that he once did.

Donning one of his unused presidential suits, he was surrounded by a phalanx of local hangers-on, an assortment of spiritual leaders and an elderly support unit of MK veterans. He looked old, weakened and exposed to the elements of the real world and the law. He was alone, isolated and without the institutional support of the State and the political support of the ANC.

There was no one from Luthuli House, no one from the party leadership, no Blade Nzimande or Zwelinzima Vavi next to him. Even the erratic and questionable (but loyal) Carl Niehaus was elsewhere.

Up on the stage in front of a small crowd of interested passers-by – including, admittedly, some die-hard Zumaites – he did his usual routine. After standing somberly at the back of the stage while religious leaders exhalted the Creator to protect the wronged former head of state, Zuma stepped forward and effortlessly slipped into his favourite routine.

Jacob Zuma in the dock in the Pietermaritzburg High Court. (Photo: Doctor Ngcobo/Pool)

He launched into a diatribe about the injustice of the charges against him and claimed he was being targeted because he’s black. And then he invoked the struggle, piping up with songs about suffering and justice, before signing of with “Umshini Wami”, the singalong standard which helped unite his legions of supporters ahead of the ANC’s elective conference in Polokwane in 2007, almost a thousand years ago.

But the Zuma on stage was a much diminished one from the powerful ANC leader who commanded all he surveyed from his perch at the party’s headquarters in central Johannesburg, or the mighty head of state who moulded and shaped the institutional machinery of government to serve his and his network’s interests.

His day in court, the moment he has over the years nominally and dishonestly asked for, is fast approaching.

All the courts agree: It’s time

The High Court’s rejection last week of Zuma’s application for a permanent stay of prosecution is a significant milestone on the tortuous and exhausting journey to criminal trial.

Three judges emphatically rejected his arguments that the delay in the trial means that he wasn’t given fair or just treatment and that political interference by the National Prosecuting Authority (NPA) renders his hope of a fair hearing impossible.

The judgment effectively paved the way for his trial on charges of corruption, money laundering and racketeering to commence. This is so because all three higher courts – the High Court, Supreme Court of Appeal (SCA) and Constitutional Court – have now in various judgments pointed Zuma in one direction: to the dock. These courts declared that the charges against him should not have been dropped and that he should be prosecuted.

Zuma has indicated that he will appeal and there’s no doubt that in this instance, too – like in every other judgment in which he came off second best – he will resort to the SCA and the Constitutional Court. Given the nature of the judgments against him, it is highly doubtful whether he will get leave to appeal or permission for direct access to the SCA and the Constitutional Court.

This will, again, serve to frustrate the process of dishing up justice, but when it’s concluded it will mean that almost every single legal avenue available to Zuma to avoid standing trial would have been exhausted. The substantive issues around the charges have been cleared up. And all the courts agree: it’s time to talk about the encrypted fax, Schabir Shaik and the R500 000 bribe.

Desperately trying to remain relevant

It’s been 20 months since Zuma resigned from office after President Cyril Ramaphosa masterfully corralled together a coalition of the willing, the pragmatic and the opportunistic to dispose of the tainted and corrupted president.

Since leaving the safe confines of the Union Buildings and the comforts of the presidential suite on the sixth floor of Luthuli House, Zuma initially retreated into the safety of his network. Support from ANC secretary general Ace Magashule and the former premier league principals (including Supra Mahumapelo) meant that he had significant support and access to the party’s innards. And KwaZulu-Natal, the cornerstone of his base, was important. Retaining influence and support there was crucial if Zuma was to influence the party.

Billy Downer and Wim Trengove

Advocates Wim Trengove and Billy Downer during former president Jacob Zuma’s application for a stay of prosecution in the Pietermaritzburg High Court in May 2019. (Photo: Felix Dlangamandla/Netwerk24)

The initial flurry of activity and excitement when Zuma, the wounded leader, regrouped in the provinces, have been replaced with him fighting for survival in court and trying to muster conspiracy theories at the Zondo commission.

Although the Ramaphosa clean-up has not yet sterilised the Augean stables left behind by Zuma, the changing of the guard (aided by the passing of time) has reduced the former prince of Polokwane to increased irrelevance.

Zuma has no power left, except perhaps symbolic. Large sections of the ANC in KwaZulu-Natal have seemingly deserted him (Sihle Zikalala, provincial secretary, a case in point) while others have been removed (Zandile Gumede, disgraced eThekwini mayor, another case in point).  

He will still command a band of loyalists who will rally around him. But he’s a spent force. And he has nothing to offer.

The patronage networks he spawned, however, remain and the insurrection inside the ANC, which is a function of his years of rule and moral and ethical depravity, is also not going away.

South Africa might be rid of the person, but the repercussions remain.

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