Judith February writes: Jacob Zuma’s actions are worthy of our collective contempt

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The past few days in South Africa have been deeply distressing. Things seem to be falling apart; the centre is not holding.

Former President Jacob Zuma now finds himself behind bars in an Estcourt prison. As the clocked ticked towards midnight last Thursday, a few supporters dribbled around Nkandla. Zuma’s son Edward mumbled incoherently into the camera. Finally, Zuma was arrested. The Constitution had withstood the test of that pivotal moment.

We saluted our Constitutional Court as Justice Khampepe delivered the strongly worded judgment on behalf of the majority of the court. ‘Emotional’, Zuma and his coterie of supporters cried in their attempts to discredit Khampepe. It was not dissimilar to former US President Donald Trump’s labelling of Hillary Clinton as a ‘nasty woman’ during their presidential candidates’ debate. It’s a trope used by men who seek to undermine women who threaten their worst insecurities.

As if to underline this, the Jacob Zuma Foundation tweeted a picture of six men, including Zuma himself, Dali Mpofu, Thabani Masuku (both men, his legal counsel) and Mzwanele Manyi with the caption: We are Team President Zuma. President Zuma is us. We are President Zuma. Nothing ethnic here. #WenzenuZuma.

Populism at its best with a whiff of toxic masculinity for good measure – these are the men behind Zuma’s reckless attempts to tear down the edifice of our constitutional democracy. These unprincipled lawyers and others who speak on behalf of Zuma are comfortable to weaponise gender, race, ethnicity, and poor legal argument in defence of the indefensible.

It is for this reason that a half-baked application for rescission of the ConCourt judgment has been made, after all. It is also the reason Justice Mnguni gave the application for stay of the warrant of arrest short shrift in the Pietermaritzburg High Court on Friday.

It is also the same way Trump utilised lawyers to do his bidding during his Presidency. In fact, there is much about Zuma which is decidedly Trumpian. The law never applies to him, yet he is comfortable to invoke the courts’ assistance for his own benefit. In simple terms, when they find for him, they are upholding the rule of law and when they find against him, they are agents of white monopoly capital. Any slogan will do.

The latest lie is that Zuma is being ‘detained without trial’, even as his lawyers are aware that he elected to walk out of the Zondo Commission and equally cocked a snook at the ConCourt by refusing to participate in the proceedings brought against him for contempt of court.

The ‘detention without trial’ mantra is a cheap attempt to whip up popular sentiment by invoking painful and emotionally charged apartheid memories. Similarly, Zuma’s lawyers warned of ‘another Marikana’ should the Pietermaritzburg High Court not set aside the warrant for his arrest. Marikana was a painful and shameful moment in our post-apartheid history. It diminishes that moment by comparing it to Zuma’s arrest for willful contempt of our democratic processes.

To be clear: Zuma is not a victim. In fact, his contempt for the rule of law is worthy of our collective contempt. Now, finally faced with consequences for his actions, his supporters have turned to fomenting violence. This violence has now morphed into sheer criminality as malls and small businesses are looted in parts of Gauteng and KwaZulu-Natal.

We watched as people pulled up in cars and looted entire malls. There is much depravity in South Africa, but surely we have reached a new low when a mosque is burnt? All the while, Zuma’s acolytes like Manyi and Carl Niehaus tweet pictures of violence or call for President Ramaphosa to resign. Manyi said the quiet part out loud.

Given that, it would seem inconceivable that this looting is not, in part, orchestrated by certain political forces seeking to completely weaken the President.

The situation seems out of control and the Minister of Police, Bheki Cele, usually so eager to enforce lockdown laws, was largely silent until Tuesday morning. It begs the question, ‘why?’

We have also witnessed a complete failure of intelligence to infiltrate communities where looting is happening and to monitor WhatsApp groups and social media. Zuma’s daughter openly incites violence on Twitter. This is a country of no consequence.

The violence and untrammelled looting have led President Ramaphosa to deploy the SANDF as he is entitled to do in terms of s201 of the Constitution. Given the failure of intelligence, it is unsurprising that there was a delay in putting together a comprehensive response.

As ever, the equally opportunistic Julius Malema, leader of the EFF, has said his supporters will mobilise against troops on the streets. The EFF appears to be forming an unholy alliance with Zuma’s coterie of radical economic transformers, the so-called ‘RET’ brigade. There are many within Zuma’s family and within and outside of the ANC who stand to gain from the violence being fomented.

The populists’ playbook is to destroy and sow chaos and confusion. And there is plenty of that around.

In all the chaos and confusion of violence and criminality, the Constitution itself has come under threat. How do we protect and defend the Constitution when many would seek to blame it for the ills in our society?

For a while now, it has become easy and intellectually lazy for many to label our constitutional settlement and Nelson Mandela himself as a ‘sell-out’ for his role in negotiating South Africa’s transition. Zuma has been known to question the very Constitution he helped negotiate, after all. In an environment of want and degradation for millions of South Africans, it is easy to understand how this argument could be exploited and how it could resonate. Yet, it is a view ignorant of that historical moment and the sacrifices Mandela and countless others made for our collective freedom.

Amid this mayhem, the ConCourt is hearing Zuma’s application for rescission of judgment. Mpofu must surely know his case is wafer thin? Yet he relies less on legal rigour and precedent and more on a stealthy attempt to draw the ConCourt into the scenes of violence and looting happening outside. There is no doubt that part of the strategy is to intimidate the ConCourt into rescinding the application for fear of further anarchy.

It would be a sad day should our apex court succumb to the pressure of thuggery and violence. Then, as Justice Khampepe said, the Constitution would not be worth the paper it is written upon.

Had Zuma been a leader with a jot of care for his country or the livelihoods of those on the margins, he would have acceded to the rule of law and indicated as much to his supporters. But his playbook is naked self-interest, and he has long ago shown that he will quite easily put his own interests above those of the country.

At times of national crisis, leadership matters. This may well be the time to remember again Mandela’s leadership at the moment of Chris Hani’s assassination. It was Mandela’s act of leadership that pulled us back from the brink. Amidst the strong emotion of the moment, Madiba addressed a tense nation which may well have been on the brink of civil war that night.

And who can forget Mandela’s statesmanlike speech to a 200,000-strong crowd in Durban at the height of IFP-ANC violent clashes, when he said: “Take your guns, your knives and your pangas and throw them into the sea. End this war now.” He urged peace at a time when we thought peace was impossible – let alone a free and fair election.

It is this kind of leadership which is called for now, not only from Ramaphosa who looks and sounds battle-weary, but from those within civil society, the media, communities, political parties, business and religious organisations. We would seek it from the governing ANC, but it is too divided and compromised to provide truly wise leadership at a time such as this.

While Zuma’s role in this sad moment for our country is plain for all to see, South Africa will need to take a long and hard look at itself and its fault-lines which have for so long been ripe for exploitation. In a country with such high unemployment rate, specifically amongst the youth, and unsustainable levels of poverty and inequality, South Africa’s tinder box was only ever going to need a small flame. Add to this weak law enforcement and near non-existent police intelligence and it’s easy for the genie to escape the bottle.

In South Africa violence comes all too easily. As academic Nadia Davids said so eloquently this week as part of a lament for the state we are in: “Violence is South Africa’s 12th national language. A language built up carefully, systematically, over hundreds of years in every possible space-personal, political, public, individual and collective. It’s a language we need to stop being so fluent in.”

Ernesto Nhamuave, a 35-year-old Mozambican was burned alive during xenophobic violence on the East Rand in May 2008 that spread across the country. He became known as ‘The Burning Man’. A burning man in a burning country. Levels of inequality have simply increased since then and wanton violence has become almost everyday – until it subsides and we all continue with our lives.

In 2015, the streets of Durban and surrounding townships were seething with anger and violence as foreigners and locals battled it out. The government finally stepped in to prevent a bloodbath in Durban, yet the response was largely reactive. Then, the late King Goodwill Zwelethini was quoted as saying all foreigners should return to the places they came from. At the time, the government refused to speak out against these blatantly inciteful comments and the king himself blamed the media for misinterpreting what he said.

As with everything else in South Africa, the reasons for violence are complex. Sometimes it has been driven by xenophobia, other times a rather more confusing cocktail of anger, frustration and intolerance bubbling at the surface of our society. We seem to be straining at the seams as the repercussions of deep inequalities, our inability to bring about structural economic transformation post-1994 and the old baggage of the apartheid years come to haunt us.

In countless works of research on local government and conflict in municipalities, the same mantra is heard repeatedly: “They only come when we start to burn things.”

We have seen violent flare-ups in our society again and again, though nothing as unpredictable as what we are seeing now. This time, of course, it is linked to the rather more dangerous cause of a victim-politician and his coterie of supporters who are fighting for self-preservation.

Added to this the fact that Ramaphosa has a tenuous grip on some parts of the ANC itself and that the state simply appears weak when it is faced with large-scale looting and what is in effect economic sabotage.

But the question remains, for how long still can we keep the majority of South Africans on the margins of our society? Our futures, black and white, rich, and poor, are intrinsically inter-linked. How do we start to build that inclusive future and a new social compact as opposed to the same tired ideas of reconstruction? The ANC has run out of ideas and is too busy dealing with its internecine battles to be able to provide thought leadership. The far larger conversation needs to be inclusive, and it needs to happen with urgency.

Our towns and cities are mostly falling apart, and the COVID-19 pandemic has left us in the perfect storm. State capture has hollowed out our institutions and left them incapable and unresponsive. The recent Auditor-General report on municipalities indicates just how broken local government is. Corruption is endemic in many parts of the country.

It is time that we implemented a few big ideas to combat poverty and inequality. We simply cannot continue as we did before. This political crisis is a societal crisis and demands more of us all, especially those in power. It also demands more than well-intentioned talk about economic policy.

At times of national crisis, citizens look to their leaders to articulate that which is in the national consciousness. There is collective pain and trauma, anger and frustration. But at such a time, citizens also want a plan of action so that they know their lives and property will be protected from wanton acts of criminality. Ramaphosa’s Monday night address was stilted and yet again, behind a wooden podium with no interaction with the media thereafter. It is abundantly clear that South Africa needs a new social compact, and urgently. If Ramaphosa was waiting for a ‘break glass now!’ moment, this is it.

Pandora’s box has been opened and he should simply expend the political capital he has. To do so he will need to harness the overwhelming majority of South Africans and social partners against the common ‘enemy’ – those who seek to destroy the democratic state and endanger its citizens.

The first agenda item would be to restore order and then start the grand project of social reconstruction. Implementing a basic income grant would be a useful starting point. Despite it all, the will still exists to fix what is broken in our country.

We either sink or swim together. The alternative, which we are seeing a glimpse of at present, is anarchy. This is where we are. Our constitutional order is being severely tested. Violence stalks the land and in the next days, may get worse before things get better. The SANDF should, with restraint, defend and protect the democratic order and the citizens of the Republic.

In a sense, this was always going to be the denouement Zuma has sought all along. While it will be difficult, we must meet this moment with clear-eyed vision and with a will and a plan to build the inclusive future which our Constitution demands of us. We cannot continue to lurch from crisis to crisis hoping for the best.

Ours is a country which demands much from those who call it home. It is bewildering and bewitching in equal measure. Today we weep for all that we have lost in the past days. Alan Paton could have written these words today:

“There is not much talking now. A silence falls upon them all. This is no time to talk of hedges and fields, or the beauty of any country. Sadness and fear and hate, how they well up in the heart and mind, whenever one opens pages of these messengers of doom. Cry for the broken tribe, for the law and the custom that is gone. Aye, and cry aloud for the man who is dead, for the woman and children bereaved. Cry, the beloved country, these things are not yet at an end. The sun pours down on the earth, on the lovely land that man cannot enjoy. He knows only the fear of his heart.”

Judith February is a lawyer, governance specialist and Visiting Fellow at the Wits School of Governance. She is the author of ‘Turning and turning: exploring the complexities of South Africa’s democracy’. Follow her on Twitter: @judith_february