During Jacob Zuma’s Presidency, South African had to contend with racial parochialism, State inaptitude and a gloomy economy. Dystopia became the only legacy the former President would bequeath to the present and future generations.
Philosopher Antonio Gramsci once noted: ‘The State was only an outer ditch behind which there stood a powerful system of fortresses.” Zuma may have had the support of the African National Congress (ANC) in the early days, but soon the Goliath was attacked on all sides by a multitude of Davids.
Zuma played his classic victim card: he was the target of an elaborate plot involving locals and foreigners. He always asserted that foreign powers were engaging in a counterrevolution, and this was echoed by some of his more compliant Cabinet Ministers, most of whom have since been removed.
Whereas Zuma was unable to secure the ‘powerful system of fortresses’, his rival, Cyril Ramaphosa, now the President of the country, would rally, and has rallied, behind him multitudes of forces both within and outside the ANC.
This fortress of support, made up of civic society and anti-Zuma elites, is conditional and will last only as long as he deals with the waywardness of the Zuma era.
Zuma’s resignation on February 14 was a historic moment – Valentine’s Day will never be the same again. When he fell, we realised that he was vulnerable and was prone to flights of fancy and that his own betrayal of the people also led others who were part of his system of patronage to abandon him as his currency no longer had value.
Now we see the debris of a fallen system of corruption and we try to understand how all this happened.
The Zuma era is testament to how democracy can be hijacked, despite the safeguards that are in place. It was a test of the system but a lot remains to be fixed as South Africans would not favour another era like the one we experienced during the last nine years.
Our Constitution does not give a sitting President immunity from criminal prosecution, but a sitting President can manipulate prosecuting authorities from acting against his interests, which is what Zuma was able to achieve. By so doing, he was able to avoid prosecution.
There was no better evidence of his malevolence than the Nkandla affair, about which he was given a tough talk and lesson on constitutionalism and his obligations as State President by Chief Justice Moegeng Moegeng when he delivered the Nkandla ruling.
Our Constitution was designed to prevent a situation like the one we experienced during Zuma’s reign, but it does not factor in how power within a party can be used to prevent a democratic Parliament from removing a sitting President. Parliament can declare a ‘no confidence vote’ in a sitting President and force the President to resign and dissolve his Cabinet, leading to fresh elections.
Parliament could, in theory, impeach a sitting President, but no rules nor procedures existed. They are being developed during the current sitting of Parliament. A sitting President will have to be shown to be a constitutional delinquent by means of reasonable proof. This will no doubt strengthen Parliament in the future. A lot also depends on how Members of Parliament are beholden to the dominant party and whether they are willing to cross their own Rubicon – that line between self-preservation and the interests of the nation.
The country’s democracy, rather paradoxically, was held to ransom by the democratic mechanisms of the national executive committee (NEC) of the ANC.
Zuma was able to use patronage and fear to win majority support within the NEC. Party constitutions – particularly the ANC constitution – will have to be relooked at to ensure that recall mechanisms are more robust and not subject to vote rigging by design or incestuous relations.
The Zuma era had the inevitable effect of testing our independent judiciary, civil society and the fourth estate. They all survived his grip on power and were key to the elite power shifts within the ANC itself. Without such concerted pressure from outside the ‘good camp’ within, the ANC would have had less leverage over Zuma.
A wide ecosystem of corruption busters, with some resources and influence, did have their day but the final shove had to come from within the ANC itself, otherwise the 2019 polls would have decided the fate of the ANC itself.
Constitutionalism will be further strengthened through the passing of a new Bill that will force political parties to disclose their funding sources. None of the major political players have been keen on being transparent about their sources of funding. It is ironic that the ANC is leading the way on this Bill and will help to weaken party capture by special interests, which is always the first stepping stone towards State capture.
Society will learn more about the State capture that took place during the Zuma era through the combination of the Zondo Commission of Inquiry into State Capture, the Parliamentary hearings on State enterprises and the pursuit by law enforcement agencies of State capture figures and conspirators, which is what is happening currently. We will have a Truth and Reconciliation of a different kind as we go about confirming and uncovering more truths about State capture.
These multiple avenues of uncovering and prosecuting will be cathartic in that corruption perpetrators will not only be named and shamed but will forever be confined to the ‘ dustbin of history’, to use that apt Trotskyite phrase. In the meantime, fixing the wrongs of the Zuma era, building trust and reinforcing strained institutions of democracy and culture will take time to accomplish, probably years.
What has been undone will have to be rewired and reworked again.