South Africa: Zuma’s early release from prison sparks doubts about Ramaphosa

By Carien du Plessis
Posted on Wednesday, 15 September 2021 14:03

South African President Cyril Ramaphosa testifies before the Zondo Commission of Inquiry into State Capture in Johannesburg
South African President Cyril Ramaphosa testifies before the Zondo Commission of Inquiry into State Capture in Johannesburg, South Africa, August 12, 2021. REUTERS/Sumaya Hisham

Former president Jacob Zuma's sudden release on medical parole has sparked questions over whether President Cyril Ramaphosa has enough political support in the governing African National Congress for his reform agenda.

There were reports in the City Press, a Sunday broadsheet, that Ramaphosa had given the nod for Zuma’s release beforehand. However, the presidency refused to comment or deny this report, describing the story as “rumours started by anonymous sources”.

If his intention was that he be seen to be supporting Zuma’s release from prison, Ramaphosa might be taking a gamble that he is hoping will benefit him and the ANC ahead of the 1 November local government elections and the ANC’s internal elective conference in December 2022. The populous KwaZulu-Natal province – Zuma’s stronghold – currently constitutes the ANC’s biggest bloc of members.

Many of Zuma’s supporters were angered by his imprisonment in early July. The Constitutional Court had sentenced him to 15 months in jail after finding him guilty of contempt following his defiance of a court order to testify at an inquiry into large-scale corruption during his presidency.

A senior ANC leader in the province – who spoke anonymously to City Press – said the medical parole was part of the plan to convince Zuma to go to prison in the first place.

How sick is the former president?

The press release from the Department of Correctional Services unexpectedly announced the decision to release Zuma on medical parole last Sunday. He had been hospitalised barely three weeks into his prison stay, initially for what the Jacob Zuma Foundation described as “his annual medical routine check-up”.

It didn’t come as a surprise when the trusty old card of medical parole was hauled out of the cupboard.”

The check-up was followed by surgery and some sources close to him say he is “seriously ill” with colon cancer. This can’t be officially confirmed due to the secrecy surrounding his condition and his refusal thus far to be examined by doctors appointed by the National Prosecuting Authority to determine if he is fit to stand his ongoing corruption trial.

Prisons head Arthur Fraser later admitted on national television that he overrode the medical parole board’s decision after it found that Zuma was ‘in a stable condition’.

Fraser was the spy boss during Zuma’s presidency and handed tapes to the former president’s legal team, which led to the state dismissing his prosecution on corruption charges in 2009.

Fraser said his decision was both legal and procedural as he “reviewed the information available and then indicated that the conditions, based on all the reports that we have, require us [the state] to release the former president”. Three other doctors found in their medical assessments that the prison’s medical facilities were unable to cater for Zuma.

Political parole?

One day after the announcement of Zuma’s medical parole, Ramaphosa deviated from a more matter-of-fact scripted speech during a publicly live-streamed address and told senior ANC leaders that the party welcomed the decision. “[…] We have heard that he is not well, and we would like to wish him quick recovery as he is restored back to his home to be with his loved ones.”

Opposition Democratic Alliance (DA) leader John Steenhuisen says he considers Ramaphosa’s remarks as a stamp of approval because Zuma’s release could benefit the ANC. “It didn’t come as a surprise when the trusty old card of medical parole was hauled out of the cupboard,” he says, referring to the perceived abuse of medical parole to release political allies in the past.

Zuma’s former financial adviser, Schabir Shaik, was released on parole in 2009 on grounds that he was terminally ill (he is still alive); and former police chief Jackie Selebi, who was convicted of corruption, was let go in 2012 due to illness (he died two and a half years later).

ANC campaign issues

Steenhuisen says the initial secrecy that surrounded Zuma’s release was puzzling as he would have qualified for ordinary parole in a month or two anyway. However, Steenhuisen says, Ramaphosa needed Zuma to be freed ahead of the local government polls on 1 November because of the revolt in KwaZulu-Natal over his imprisonment.

The media portrayed Ramaphosa as being behind this (medical parole) decision so he comes across as a saviour…”

There has been a simmering unhappiness in some party structures there since Ramaphosa’s election as ANC president in 2017 with a narrow majority over Zuma’s preferred candidate, Nkosazana Dlamini Zuma (who is now the minister responsible for local government).

Some of this anger spilled over into violent protests, arson and looting a week after Zuma’s imprisonment. While some Zuma allies appeared to have acted as instigators, analysts later said the scale of the anger was more linked to socio-economic factors than the ANC’s infighting.

The province is also infamous for its number of politically-motivated murders. Over the weekend, three women who attended an ANC meeting to nominate elections candidates in Inanda, north of Durban, were assassinated in a drive-by shooting.

The ANC needs Zuma to campaign in KwaZulu-Natal, says Steenhuisen, who hails from the province. “It is their most vote-rich province and the ANC structures have been saying: ‘We’re not going to work if JZ is in jail. How are we going to work and tell people to come and vote when Msholozi is sitting in his prison?'” he says, referring to Zuma’s clan name. “I think the ANC made a straight up and down decision here and had to cloak it with medical parole.”

The party has in previous years lost by-elections when local leaders revolted against political rivals in the party’s national leadership.

Steenhuisen says Zuma’s release on medical parole is a deviation from procedure, in spite of the initial praise for the triumph of the rule of law when Zuma was imprisoned. The DA has since gone to court to challenge Fraser’s parole decision.

Did Ramaphosa overplay his hand?

Analyst Xolani Dube from the Durban-based Xubera Institute for Research and Development reckons that Ramaphosa might have weakened himself by misjudging the situation and overplaying his hand.

“The media portrayed Ramaphosa as being behind this (medical parole) decision so he comes across as a saviour, and someone who is concerned about the health of his predecessor and of an ageing adult,” he says. “Ramaphosa thought that [Zuma’s release] would soften the voters in KwaZulu-Natal, but I don’t think what he did […] is going to make an impact. People have already made up their minds about who he is.”

Ramaphosa has also been accused of insulting the amaZulu people of the province by initially characterising July’s violence and looting as a tribal revolt. He backtracked on this pronouncement soon after.

Dube says voters were more concerned about the lack of water and electricity supply, social grants, and unemployment, rather than about the ANC’s infighting.

On the other hand, those that have praised Ramaphosa as a reformer and corruption-fighter may be disappointed with Zuma’s medical parole. “By appearing to support (Zuma’s release), Ramaphosa has failed to consolidate any particular constituency into his corner,” Dube says. “He has managed to isolate himself from both.”

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