“No one has told me what I have done wrong. No one has been able to furnish what I’ve done. If I’ve done something wrong, there are processes within the ANC. I found it very unfair to me that this issue must be raised all the time,” Jacob Zuma, said in an interview with the SABC just hours before being recalled from the presidency in 2018. Last weekend, the Sunday Times reported that Zuma has repeated this line as he refuses to answer his summons to appear before Justice Zondo at the State Capture Commission. “What have I done?” Zuma asks.
We asked Tessa Dooms and Ivor Sarakinsky to answer.
Tessa Dooms, Director at JASRO Consulting, Political Analyst and Youth Worker
Former President Jacob Zuma’s position that he has done nothing wrong is neither strange nor surprising. Zuma exists in a political culture that is built on legal rather than moral accountability. If the question about the rightness or wrongness of one’s actions is based on whether there is a court that can prove it or is measured relative to others in your party then there exists no incentive for self-reflection.
There is also a case to be made for the extension of notions of collective responsibility to be extended to a President who could not have acted alone for better or worse. Jacob Zuma is not an anomaly – he is a product of the politics of the ANC and the country. Until we raise the bar of accountability across political parties and actors we cannot be surprised or outraged at Zuma in isolation.
Ivor Sarakinsky, Associate Professor/Academic Director | Wits School of Governance
It all starts with Bulelani Ngcuka. It was for the Shabir Sheik conviction and then the statements made Ngcuka which was controversial in terms of deciding not to prosecute Zuma. That’s what triggered the whole attack on the NPA. I think attack is the right word. I’m not using it lightly. So straight away the allegations are made that Ngcuka is a spy and you have the Hefer commission. It was 2007 or somewhere around there. There’s thewhole spy allegation, the Hefer commission investigating it. In the meantime and Ngcuka goes out and Mokotedi Mpshe comes in as NPA boss. On the basis of some international precedent, which wasn’t really relevant, he decides to drop the charges against Zuma. That was the first time that there was political interference in the NPA.
That decision stands until it goes all the way to the courts, where the courts eventually throw out Mpshe’s position that there was no case to be prosecuted because of the political interference in the prosecution. That prosecution is forthcoming in the court date that has been set for May this year. So as the cliche goes the wheels of justice move slowly, but they move.
In the meantime you had a chair who was embarrassed. He was pushed off into the land bank. Then you have another NPA person appointed under very controversial circumstances. Then there was the clearly political appointment in the form of Shaun Abrahams. He was an obvious and clear political appointment and he was put there to manage Zuma’s political risk in terms of that case and a whole range of others that might emerge.
He eventually left and then Ramaphosa started to try to rebuild the NPA with the appointment of Shamila Batohi. We’ve seen about over ten years of political interference in the NPA. The whole thing was to stop the prosecution of Zuma for a whole range of acts. This meant the quality of public prosecutions declined across the board as you have the politicisation of the NPA. It spreads to the provinces and it spreads to the management. This results in a fundamental lack of public trust in the power of the NPA to do what it’s supposed to do.
The early cases in terms of the corruption and arms deal we’re going to hear shortly is almost a kind of gateway into the large scale state capture that has been exposed more recently. I think that part of the explanation is perhaps that political actors saw how easy it was to extract money from public institutions and public bodies in terms of patronage networks and rent seeking. That opened up opportunities and confidence to do the kind of stuff that happened in the state capture era. I would see the arms deal as a gateway case for state capture. It showed people in the executive that the legislature was weak, that the judiciary could be pushed around and they could be almost neutralized. That’s how I would link the history to the present.
If he doesn’t appear before the Zondo Commission there is going to be some consequence in terms of him being prosecuted for contempt of court. I think that that’s pretty clear. What he’s trying to do here is play a game of brinkmanship with the Constitutional Court and the Zondo commission. What he’s trying to say is you can’t push me because there’s going to be trouble. I think that these threats are not as credible as they would like us all to believe. But I think there will be trouble.
I think that at the end of the day Zuma will appear before the Zondo Commission. I might be wrong and no one knows what’s going on in his head. In that way, he’ll circumvent going to jail because the commission has said if he doesn’t appear we’ll request a sanction of two years in jail, which they can do.
So it’s the end game for Zuma at a range of levels. The legal and political processes are grinding. The members of the commission have cornered him, and there’s very little that he can do. He has made many threats over the years. We’ve seen that all before and we wait to see what he can do. He always claimed to be a very good chess player. But I think he’s just been caught now and his playing abilities aren’t as good as people thought they were.
The NPA has recovered to a noticeable extent in terms of their neutrality and the lack of political interference. I think that this is probably one of the most important aspects of the Ramaphosa presidency is to rebuild the quality and independence of the judicial process. It’s a slow process of cleaning up, but I think it’s happening. There’s been significant progress, but it’s not complete. What’s needed now is to rebuild the middle echelon of the public prosecutors who go to court. Not everyone can do that. You need to be a pretty skilled advocate with a lot of experience.
That’s where I think the work needs to be done, especially to take up the caseload, not just for other criminal cases and GBV and the whole range of other issues in society, but just to prosecute what’s coming out of the Zondo commission. We’re talking about a need for serious legal capacity to turn these claims into legal processes that could stick in the court of law. That requires talented, committed advocates in large numbers that I’m not sure the NPA has the capacity for yet. I’m not sure they’ll be able to do it quickly. So if people are expecting quick turnaround court cases, I think that we’ve got to change that expectation.
There might be a need for a constitutional amendment in how the head of the NPA is appointed – to take that away from the executive authority or to neutralise executive authority. So that maybe the judicial services commissions make recommendations to the president who can just approve the decision instead of making the decision. That’s the lesson that comes out of the last 15 years.