30 July 2021

Is South Africa’s Democracy Strong Enough? The Jacob Zuma Story

Jacob Zuma, the former South African President, turned himself in on 7 July to serve a 15-month jail sentence handed down by the judges of the Constitutional Court. He was found guilty of contempt of court for ignoring an order to appear before an official inquiry on 29 June. The injunction served was for pending investigations of corruption allegations he faced during his nine-year presidency between 2009 and 2018, during which he attempted to evade accountability over his time in office.

Zuma is currently facing more than 15 counts of racketeering, corruption, fraud, tax evasion and money laundering, charges to which he pleaded not guilty. In a separate case, he faces charges of corruption over a $5 billion dollars arms deal in the 1990s.

The imprisonment of Zuma has sowed deep divisions among South Africans. Zuma’s home province of KwaZulu-Natal, in particular the city of Durban, experienced major civil unrest as the former president’s supporters protested against his arrest using direction-action tactics, before the demonstrations descended into looting and arson carried against shopping malls, factories, and other targets. 

Whilst the protests initially began as a display of support for Zuma, the violent disturbances which erupted in KwaZulu-Natal and later Gauteng, morphed into anti-government protests against President Cyril Ramaphosa and the African National Congress (ANC) ruling party, and an expression of deep anger against the worsening levels of inequality and poverty in the country, which has been exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic. With the protests leaving over 300 people dead and thousands of small businesses destroyed, the South African government eventually stepped in to disperse the riots by enlisting the military to restore order to the provinces. 

The calls from protesters about foul play echoes the words of the former president who argues that his arrest was devised by his internal opponents within the ANC, as he was imprisoned without a trial which is considered a requirement under the constitution. Additionally, the demand from Zuma’s supporters hinges on the framework of the law being followed to the letter as he has been imprisoned since 7 July. However, the arrest also has significant bearings on the values of a democratic government as the anti-corruption legal proceedings will be a significant test of post-apartheid South Africa’s ability to enforce the rule of law, particularly against powerful politicians.

This problem of corruption is one that is visible across Africa and in other countries such as Brazil, Turkey and India, who are beleaguered by strongman politicians with little regard for democratic norms and the integrity of national institutions. However, due to the history of the continent, African nations often struggle to find the will to prosecute their leaders for acts of corruption that can leave countries crippled and democratic institutions battered. 

Many South Africans hope that the judicial institutions will remain strong and independent and that the ANC government is able to uphold the rule of law without resorting to political bias. Perhaps the best demonstration of this would be to keep imprisoned a corrupt former leader whom some once regarded as a close political ally having fought together for the liberation of South Africa from apartheid rule.

By Ellen-Janet Adelakin

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