South Africa: Zuma’s weakness shows that ‘Ramaphosa is winning’

By Carien du Plessis
Posted on Wednesday, 7 July 2021 22:50

Supporters of South Africa's former president Jacob Zuma wearing camoflage uniforms guard the entrance to his home in Nkandla, South Africa, 7 July 2021. REUTERS/Rogan Ward

Moves by South Africa's President Cyril Ramaphosa to reform the governing African National Congress (ANC) by ridding it of leaders implicated in large-scale government corruption, or "state capture", are slowly bearing fruit.

Nevertheless, a reluctance by the police to arrest former president Jacob Zuma on contempt charges – as gun-toting supporters came out to “protect” him – is testing the resilience of the state institutions Ramaphosa has been setting out to strengthen in his just over three years as the country’s president. Zuma severely weakened institutions in the justice sector by appointing loyalists.

ANC behind Ramaphosa

The ANC’s 86-strong national executive committee (NEC) expressed its “unequivocal commitment and defence of the constitution, the rule of law and the independence of the judiciary”, after a special Zoom meeting on Monday 5 July.

It also slammed Zuma’s supporters, a mixture of amabutho (traditional Zulu military guilds) and members of the ANC’s Umkhonto we Sizwe Military Veterans Association. The NEC took aim at their “counter-revolutionary calls for violence and even civil war, parading of armed groups, flagrant display weapons and firing of guns”.

The Zuma backers gathered in their hundreds in front of his rural Nkandla home in the KwaZulu-Natal province over the weekend to form what they called “human shields” to prevent him from being arrested, flouting the country’s strict lockdown regulations as it is battling a massive surge in Covid-19 infections and deaths without adequate vaccine stocks.

The NEC said the order from the party’s national working committee to disband the military veterans’ group must be executed.

Taming tensions

Even though the NEC hurriedly postponed its weekend meeting to enable leaders to rush to the province to quell tensions, the party’s deputy secretary general, Jessie Duarte, was at pains to explain that the resistance was organised by a faction within the ANC and it had limited support.

Zuma has defied an unappealable constitutional court order to report to police so that he could start serving a 15-month prison sentence, instead choosing to launch a couple of seemingly impossible legal challenges to stay his arrest and to rescind the order.

The police has also given contradictory responses as to what they would do if he lost his application for an interdict to the Pietermaritzburg high court on Tuesday 6 July to stay his arrest. Most legal experts say the high court cannot contradict or overrule the constitutional court on this matter and police would be obliged to arrest the former president.

Contempt of court

Seven of the judges from the country’s apex court last Tuesday declared that Zuma showed contempt for the court by refusing to obey an order to testify before the state capture inquiry.

The sentence was extreme in part because Zuma had failed to make representations to the court when it was hearing the matter. It is also the first time that the top court has ever imposed a jail sentence in a criminal matter.

Insiders said the party’s leaders on Monday resisted calls from Zuma’s faction to seek a “political” solution that would keep him out of jail and incarcerate him at home instead. There was also a push-back on efforts to discuss the details of Zuma’s conviction.

The 79-year-old will be arguing in court that imprisonment would be a “death sentence” due to his age and a “serious” health condition. He also said it poses an increased risk for him to contract Covid-19, an argument in apparent contradiction with his open flouting of health restrictions by not wearing a mask in public and his failure so far to get the Covid-19 vaccine available for free to all citizens his age.

Who is to judge?

At a media conference at his home over the weekend, Zuma likened his prison sentence to “detention without trial”, a method applied by the apartheid government to political opponents.

He reiterated that while he had no problem testifying to the inquiry, he had a problem with the presiding judge, deputy chief justice Raymond Zondo, who he had appointed himself in 2018. Zuma argued that Zondo would be biased because he had a child with the sister of one of Zuma’s wives several decades ago.

“It is my honest view that my past relationship with judge Zondo began to manifest itself in manner that caused him to treat me unfairly and with bias,” Zuma said.

On a personal level there is still a lot of sympathy for Zuma amongst ANC leaders, even though politically they support Ramaphosa’s agenda. Duarte, who has previously defended Zuma’s decision not to testify before the inquiry, said some senior ANC members will have talks with Zuma on an ongoing basis.

“Comrade Zuma is an elder and we love him, we respect him, and there is no reason for us not to engage him,” she said.

Ace up his sleeve

Suspended ANC secretary general Ace Magashule also made an appearance at Zuma’s home over the weekend, flanking him as they addressed supporters outside. This was the third time he made a public appearance in defiance of the conditions of his suspension due to corruption charges against him.

Magashule came out directly against efforts by Ramaphosa’s supporters to reform the party and rid it of grassroots problems like parallel branches that are created by rich patrons to grow support for leaders of certain factions.

“When they disband you as a branch, you must still be a branch,” he said. “When they expel you as a member, you must remain a member because you were elected. You must not go anywhere.” He also told the crowd to listen only to him and his allies.

In a time when most party meetings have been cancelled or are conducted on virtual platforms, it is difficult to gauge how much support Magashule and Zuma have.

Clean-out operations

Party insiders say charges are being drafted that would see Magashule and his allies expelled from the party completely. His suspension currently means that he is still drawing a generous salary from the ANC, which in his case is likely to be equivalent to the salary he enjoyed as provincial premier before.

An NEC insider who is sympathetic to Ramaphosa said the weekend gathering proved that Ramaphosa was winning.

Magashule “no longer enjoys strong support in the Free State, his stronghold,” he said. “With all the stolen money, and [after] putting a massive effort into it, they get a few hundred people to Nkandla.”

Zuma in his heyday could attract crowds of thousands and has also lost the support of the party’s leadership in his home province. “Countrywide shutdown? No chance,” the ANC leader said.

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