A scandalous event is set to shake South Africa in the near future: A former president of this country could soon be in prison. The country’s deputy chief justice, Justice Raymond Zondo, has called on the Constitutional Court to find former president Jacob Zuma in contempt of court and requested the “Apex Court” to sentence him to two years in jail.

How did this happen? President Zuma belongs to the same African National Congress (ANC) that Nelson Mandela belonged to. He fought under Mandela’s command (at least on paper, while the latter was in prison). The men were ideological “comrades” and comrades-in-arms. But Mandela did not make a name in the shady world of corruption and abuse of power, while Zuma did.

So what happened?

The world in 1990 was a very different place when Mandela was released from Victor Verster Prison. The Communist Bloc was in a state of collapse. Even when viewed through the pessimistic lens of the 2020s, the period following what the West called “The Collapse of Communism” was indeed a time of great hope.

Countries with ancient constitutional traditions that were based on the concept of Lex Rex, where the law is the king, not vice versa, like Poland, Bohemia/Czechia and Hungary, which had promulgated the first laws on religious tolerance (Hungary) and the first written constitution in Europe (Poland) simply shook off the Soviet yoke and returned to their old traditions of constitutional government and democracy, all underpinned by the rule of law. The Baltic states did much the same. Unfortunately neither Russia nor Ukraine followed suit.

In Africa, major changes occurred, the old Organisation of African Unity, mocked as “The Dictators’ Club”, was replaced by the African Union (AU), which set as a key goal to: “Promote democratic principles and institutions, popular participation and good governance.”

The organisation’s performance since 2002 has been mixed, but it has succeeded in stabilising parts of the continent and also, a degree of economic growth and increased access to education has been achieved.

The bane of Africa, however, is corruption. The reasons for the prodigious level of corruption on the continent are extremely complex, rooted in the social fabric, and made worse by the terrible (and largely ignored) hot wars within the Cold War, which left weak states in its wake and often paved the way for further civil wars and failed states. Africa also has very few traditions of civil society, the exceptions being the churches and other religious leadership. Understandably, African democracies are often fragile.

After the fall of Communism

Looking at South Africa, 1990 and the liberation of Central Europe and later Russia and central Eurasia acted as a seismic shock for the ANC/South African Communist Party (SACP) alliance.

Independence movements had been supported by various Communist countries, notably the Soviet Union. The ANC/SACP’s uMkhonto we Sizwe (MK) armed group received training mainly from the USSR. Eventually the SACP became dominant in MK, co-operating with well-known terrorist movements such as the Provisional Irish Republic Army (IRA). Moreover, the ANC/SACP adopted an idea floated by the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (CPSU). This was the “National Democratic Revolution” (NDR). The basic idea was that instead of having a class war featuring the workers against the bourgeoisie, former colonies where pre-industrial production existed could go straight from “feudalism” to “socialism”.

These are Marxist technical terms which do not correspond to the modern historical understanding of “feudalism” and their use of “socialism” equates with what Western people call Communism, with a planned economy. Incredibly, a large proportion of ANC members support this NDR in 2021!

However, once Communism was rejected by the peoples of the East Bloc, the ANC and SACP found themselves in a quandary. They had fought for a one-party state, now they would have to change their tune.

This legacy is at the bottom of the present crisis in South Africa. There were those, like Nelson Mandela and his successor, Thabo Mbeki, who were able to adapt their ideas to multi-party democracy and a free market, but there remained a large grouping within the ANC (which had been strongly influenced during their Struggle by the SACP) in favour of some form of Marxist economics and politics. This wing has become known as the Radical Economic Transformation grouping or RET. Jacob Zuma is the leader of these radicals.

A friendly alliance

The other problem in South Africa is constitutional and political. Despite much fawning praise about the country’s democracy, in practice it has serious flaws. One of the biggest is the alliance between the ANC, the and the COSATU (Congress of South African Trade Unions), or the Tripartite Alliance.

It is not the ANC which governs the country, but the Alliance. What’s wrong with this?

The trouble is that the while the ANC turned itself into a political party, and is regularly tested in elections, the SACP never does. And COSATU is a trade union group. Now municipal elections are based on constituencies (and the ANC does worse in these than in national elections) but nationwide elections are done exclusively on a proportional representation basis, that is, on party lists.

Once the ANC has won a district, then an SACP or COSATU member simply hands in his membership card, collects an ANC membership card, and the party then ‘redeploys’ them (the preferred Alliance term) to a given district. People one didn’t vote for tend to be much less accountable, and if the “elected” official comes under pressure for the party not keeping election promises, he or she is simply “redeployed”.

Failures in the Alliance’s governance of South Africa coincided with the international financial crisis in 2008, followed by many Westerners becoming disillusioned with free markets and looking for alternatives, including Marxism. This has likely strengthened the hand of the SACP and the Radical Economic Transformation group within the Alliance.

Jacob Zuma’s background 

Jacob Zuma has spent most of his life in the ANC, which he joined in 1958. He joined MK in 1962 but was arrested the following year, spending 10 years on Robben Island as a prisoner. He went straight back into MK after his release, operating within South Africa and then left the country for Swaziland and Mozambique, joining the SACP in 1977 and received military training in the Soviet Union the following year.

An in-depth article in African Affairs tells of his involvement in MK’s sinister secret police organisation, known popularly as mbokodo, the Nguni word for “grindstone”, formally called the Department of Intelligence and Security (DIS) of which he was the deputy directory from 1986 or 1987.

Mbokodo committed serious human rights violations in search of South African government agents within MK as well as those who erred ideologically, including torture and murder. This gave rise to mutinies in the camps, which led to punishment camps being set up in Angola, including Camp 13, Pango, and “Site 32”, better known as Quatro, which was the most notorious.

Zuma was granted amnesty by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in 1997.

This background was downplayed when Zuma became prominent in South African politics, but corruption and political arm-twisting seems to have been his style from the beginning.

When the ANC and SACP were unbanned in 1990, Zuma’s star began to rise. He became deputy president of the ANC in 1997 and President Thabo Mbeki’s deputy in 1999. His time as deputy president was scandal-ridden. In 2005, he was implicated in a corruption scandal and was dismissed. Later in the year, he was accused of rape and, while eventually acquitted, he became the subject of criticism for claiming he had practiced safe sex by having a shower. The accuser, known only as “Khwezi”, had to flee the country after threats were made to burn her to death.

Zuma returned to his position in the ANC and using his political skills, he convinced the party to “recall” the elected president, the same Thabo Mbeki who had dismissed him. (In South Africa, the president is not elected by the people, as in America; the party is.)

Zuma then set his sights on the presidency, which he achieved in 2009. At the time he was in control of the Alliance political machine, which by this time had accrued vast wealth and influence. During the ANC’s national conference in 2007, the Alliance took a major turn to the extreme left. South Africa lurched away from close contact with the West and moved closer to Cuba, Russia, China, and Iran.

COSATU protester in Cape Town against government corruption in the administration of South African President Jacob Zuma. /  Discott under CC BY-SA 4.0

‘State capture’ 

This conference also inaugurated a period of extreme mismanagement, corruption, cronyism and “state capture”, defined as the takeover of state entities to benefit private individuals or groups. Almost the first, if not the first act of the ANC’s new president was to ask Acting President Kgalema Motlanthe to disband the National Prosecuting Authority’s Directorate of Special Operations, known as the Scorpions, which was investigating him.

During Zuma’s tenure as president, before he was “recalled” in the same way as Mbeki in 2019, he scandalously built a vast mansion complex at his home village of Nkandla, in KwaZulu-Natal Province, costing some $23 million. He also made use of Waterkloof Air Force Base (AFB) in Pretoria to land a commercial jet (an Airbus A330) for his friends and business associates, the Indian Gupta family (for which two senior Air Force officials were unjustly court-martialled.

Further backroom deals worth staggering figures revealed in a book (which the ANC tried to ban) worth billions of dollars, which have severely damaged the Security Service of South Africa (where Zuma allegedly set up a “private” security cell); the South African Revenue Service, the SA Broadcasting Corporation, the Department of Defence, commuter services (where trains were ordered from Spain which could not fit under South African bridges!). There was much more, and senior ANC members were called out for “conspicuous consumption”, which meant driving astronomically expensive sports cars such as Ferraris and Porsches, or top-of-the-line limousines as well as building villas that would make the Prince of Monaco gasp.

All this cost some 1.5 trillion South African Rand, or about US$100 billion, a substantial portion of the national budget for 2019.

One practice that especially irks citizens are the “Blue Light Brigades”, where a convoy led and followed by motorcycle police outriders simply drives through traffic and God help you if you don’t get out of the way quickly! Numerous reports of police brutality, injuries and deaths related to these brigades exist, but they continue, although the Official Opposition Democratic Party (DA) has banned them from cities under its control.

Eventually, the Public Protector, in the person of Advocate (Barrister) Thuli Madonsela began an investigation into State Capture and completed her report in 2016. This led to the formation of the Zondo Commission of Inquiry, whose task it is to authenticate or disprove allegations in the report, which first heard evidence in 2018 and began investigating Jacob Zuma the following year. Ironically, it was President Zuma who appointed Zondo to head the commission.

Zuma at first cooperated, but in January of this year, he turned to the Constitutional Court asking for leave not to appear, claiming Zondo was biased and the two had a prior friendship. The Apex Court rejected his appeal. He was summonsed to appear on January 18, which he did not do. He was then called to appear from February 15 to 19, which he refused to do, stating in a long public statement: “If this stance is considered to be a violation of their law, then let their law take its course. I do not fear being arrested. I do not fear being convicted, nor do I fear being incarcerated.”

Not surprisingly, others are now taking their lead from Zuma, like Auswell Mashaba, implicated in the rail scandal. He has also refused to appear, claiming the summons was “not a lawful and legally binding document”.

In its response, the Zondo Commission according to Corruption Watch, stated it would turn to the Constitutional Court and ask for a two-year prison term for Jacob Zuma, as he is not above the law. The court will hear Zondo’s request on March 25.

(Zuma is also scheduled to appear before the KZN Provincial High Court in Pietermaritzburg on May 17, on numerous charges relating to corruption and racketeering.)

What comes next?

The unprecedented situation created by Zuma’s refusal to respond to a summons puts the justices of the Constitutional Court in a difficult situation. Jacob Zuma is “ANC Royalty” and these have in the past been treated with kid gloves, and either given lighter sentences or released early, as in the case of his friend and business partner Shabir Shaik, who was found guilty on charges of corruption and fraud and was sentenced to 15 years in prison. He served a little over two years, then was released on medical parole.

If the court treats Zuma with kid gloves, there will be widespread anger; if it grants Zondo’s request, many of the RET radicals threaten to fight police who will carry out the arrest. Does the court want to see a gunfight between former military veterans and the police?  

Politically, Zuma is expected to use this impasse to further weaken President Cyril Ramaphosa by ignoring the legal route and going the political route, presenting himself to the Alliance membership as the victim of a plot by corrupt judges and a vengeful wing of the ANC.

Whatever finally happens, there is no doubt that South Africa faces a constitutional, legal and political challenge, which could go very wrong, but could just as easily strengthen faith in the country’s democratic institutions and the whole idea of the rule of law. If the courts and the country can navigate these shoals, it will serve to strengthen a country that deserves better than this now outmoded Alliance has given it.

Christopher Szabo is a freelance journalist in Pretoria specialising in international affairs and military matters. He recently earned an M.A. in Military History from the University of Birmingham.