South Africa: Why is Zuma criminally prosecuting Ramaphosa?

By Ray Mwareya

Posted on Monday, 30 January 2023 18:59
Former President Jacob Zuma and President Cyril Ramaphosa on February 11, 2016 in Cape Town, South Africa. AFP PHOTO/POOL/MIKE HUTCHINGS

This month, South Africa’s high court temporarily prohibited ex-president Jacob Zuma from privately prosecuting President Cyril Ramaphosa. Observers say this is a continuation of a ‘judicial warfare’ stratregy that, for years, Zuma and his proxies have tinkered with to cripple Ramaphosa.

Though legally hopeless, observers say the main reason Zuma is going after Ramaphosa is should a judge or magistrate finds Ramaphosa guilty in any case, according per ANC party rules, Ramaphosa would be required to ‘step aside’ immediately from the party presidency.

Fresh party elections would then have to be organised quickly, and Zuma could then sponsor a new candidate, one who could win and stop the ongoing ‘state capture’ prosecution of Zuma. Doing so would also keep Ramaphosa buried under an avalanche of court actions. This in turn would distract him from key governing tasks and thus make him look very incompetent in the eyes of voters.

Zuma has been privately trying to lay criminal charges and prosecute President Ramaphosa because he says, Billy Downer, a retired chief prosecutor in South Africa, leaked his medical records to a high-profile journalist. He asserts that as President, Ramaphosa did not take the necessary measures to institute a commission of inquiry into Downer’s alleged misbehaviour. Such lack of action, Zuma argues, makes Ramaphosa an accessory to a crime for failing to act.

Billy Downer, whom Zuma is targetting, is a well-known prosecutor who has led previous attempts to jail Zuma for alleged fraud in the state capture saga surrounding South Africa’s $50bn public spending budget.

  • In 2005 Downer secured the jailing of Zuma’s chief financial adviser over grand corruption in South Africa’s infamous ‘arms deal saga’ of the 1990s.

However, “Zuma’s private prosecution of President Ramaphosa has no prospect of success,” Pierre de Vos, South Africa’s most famous constitutional lawyer and head of the public law department at the University of Cape Town, tells The Africa Report.

Although Zuma is charging President Ramaphosa for failing to institute an inquiry into alleged leaks at the South prosecuting agency, by law, Ramaphosa is prohibited from taking such action because the South African prosecuting authority agency is independent. Therefore it is considered a criminal offense for the president to interfere in its internal workings, de Vos explains.

Political gymnastics?

If Zuma’s private prosecution of President Ramaphosa had been okayed by South Africa’s high court – the president would have been required to appear personally in court. The prospect of such humiliation has unsettled president Ramaphosa’s attorneys so much that they complained bitterly before judges that Zuma’s attempt to charge and convict Ramaphosa is an ‘abuse of power’ and motivated by ‘ulterior political scores.’

“I do agree,” De Vos tells The Africa Report.

“[Zuma’s] prosecution was launched on the eve of the governing party’s elective conference, seemingly in an attempt to influence the outcome and to ensure that Mr. Ramaphosa is not re-elected as leader of the [ANC ruling] party”.

At the December ANC party elective congress, Ramphosa’s camp defeated a bitter faction of the ANC rallying itself around ex-president Zuma, calling itself the ‘Radical Economic Transformation’ group. Ramaphosa’s allies won five out of seven posts in the ANC’s presidium.

It’s quite a clever strategy from Zuma to escape accountability in the state plunder saga. Zuma is 80; multiple appeals and counter-prosecutions, however frivolous, will see him through to his 90s.

“Zuma’s private prosecution of Ramaphosa is part of a multi-faceted attack on Ramaphosa’s presidency. The goal is to keep Ramaphosa struggling under an avalanche of court cases and ultimately weaken him ahead of 2024 or oust him before then,” Kudakwashe Magezi, South Africa independent political analyst, tells The Africa Report from Johannesburg.

However, the high court has not entirely frozen Zuma’s private prosecution bid. It only temporarily interdicted him, adds Magezi. In the future, the high court may allow Zuma’s private prosecution of Ramaphosa to go ahead, and potentially bring further headaches for Ramaphosa.

Is Zuma delaying his fate?

“Zuma is a master of these ‘prosecute-the-prosecutor’ tactics as a way to stay out of jail,” independent economist, Carter Mavhiza, tells The Africa Report from Pretoria.

Because Downer is trying to get Zuma jailed for his alleged ringleader role in South Africa’s infamous $50bn ‘State Capture’ trial, the former president is highly motivated to keep Downer distracted by counter-prosecuting him.

“It’s quite a clever strategy from Zuma to escape accountability in the state plunder saga. Zuma is 80; multiple appeals and counter-prosecutions, however frivolous, will see him through to his 90s,” says Mavhisa.

More prosecutions?

As the crunch for the 2024 presidential elections in South Africa draws near, Zuma’s faction in the ANC will be delighted to lock president Ramaphosa in court cases and distract him from attending to the multiple crises like fixing Eskom, the South Africa public electricity utility which is on the brink of total collapse.

As the crunch for 2024 presidential elections in South Africa, seeing Ramaphosa gety caught up in court cases would ultimately distract him from  tending to the mulitiple crises, such as fixing the country’s electricity woes, and thus work to the favour of Zuma’s ANC allies.

“Expect multiple bids from Zuma to prosecute Ramaphosa ahead of 2024 – attending court will drain Ramaphosa from his urgent state priorities– it’ll make Ramaphosa sweat in voters’ eyes – that’s the vintage Zuma tactic,” says Mavhiza.

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