July 13, 2021


This Political Research Note was prepared by political and economic analyst JP Landman

In the end, it all ended with a whimper.

The threats, grand promises to ‘defend Zuma to the last drop of blood’, mobilisation, press conferences, furious speeches, insulting court applications … all culminated in a meek and mild handing over to the police and being driven off to prison.

South Africans can take a couple of lessons from this for the future.

A constitutional state

The authority of the Constitution and the guardian role of the Constitutional Court were reaffirmed in the most dramatic way. Even the statement from the police ministry at 3 am this morning stated that ‘Mr Jacob Zuma was  placed in the custody of the SAPS, in compliance with the Constitutional Court judgement’ (my emphasis). It is not good enough to be a freedom fighter of many decades standing. Everybody is subject to the law, in equal measure.  

Separation of powers

There is a clear separation of powers. It is not for the court to give guidance on whether an order should be executed or not (as the police minister has asked in a letter to the Chief Justice). It is not just the minister. Opposition parties and comment pieces regularly harrumphed that President Ramaphosa must ‘arrest Zuma’ and put people into orange overalls. On the other side in the ANC, he was urged to pardon or at least ‘find a solution’ for Zuma. President Ramaphosa consistently held the line that judicial processes will deal with that, that it is not his role and his job is to provide the executive infrastructure (budget, people, regulations). His patience, discipline and principled stance on this issue has been shown to be correct.

A noisy lot, but…

We South Africans are a noisy lot, but when push comes to shove, we revert to more moderate behaviour. Over the weekend about 3 500 Zuma supporters congregated at Nkandla to prevent his arrest. The gathering included traditional ‘Zulu regiments’, some people with home-made guns and others with machine guns that were indeed fired. The SABC reported that about one hundred people carried guns. Police were in attendance. Despite threats of blood to be spilled, no clashes occurred, no injuries were sustained, and no damage was inflicted.

Think of it, there was less violence, no deaths, and less damage than at the protest at Capitol Hill in the US on 6 January this year. When the police came for Mr Zuma, he surrendered himself and was driven off to prison. We must remember that next time a thundering verbal storm rages.

From liberation movement to political party?

Mr Zuma is in custody and simultaneously facing a trial in Pietermaritzburg where he will no longer arrive with a cavalcade, bodyguards, in a smart suit and supported by loyal cohorts. He will now enter court in an orange overall, coming from the holding cells. And he was the leader of a party which is still in power.

Ace Magashule is on his way out of the ANC and Carl Niehaus has been suspended. As a friend put it: the King, the Ace and the Joker are all out of the pack of cards now!

Consider these developments with the particularly strong statement the ANC’s National Executive Committee (NEC) issued on Monday after its meeting where, in spite of significant pressure for a ‘political solution’ to be found for the Zuma problem, the NEC held the line that legal processes must run their course and that the courts must be supported.

Amongst other items the statement reads: (The italics indicate my insertions and emphasis.)

‘a) Our unequivocal commitment to and defence of the Constitution, in particular the supremacy of the Constitution, the rule of law and the independence of the Judiciary, amongst the founding principles and values of the Republic.

b) The NEC reaffirmed our understanding that we consciously chose a democratic system and constitutional dispensation. It was not an accident, concession, or a compromise, but rather an expression of our fundamental values and beliefs as espoused by the African Claims (1943), the Freedom Charter (1955), the Harare Declaration (1989) and the Constitutional Principles (1994). The meeting stressed that it must always be clear that the interests of an individual cannot take precedence over or jeopardise the interests of our democracy or of the nation.

c) to g)

h) That the South African nation is founded on the principle of unity in diversity; and the sustenance of our democracy requires that we constantly ensure the assertion of the values of non-racialism and rejection of any manifestations of ethnic chauvinism.

i) That the Commission of Inquiry on State Capture should be supported, and all individuals who have been invited to appear, including members and leaders of the ANC, should cooperate with the Commission.

j) That the South African Police Service, and specifically those deployed at Nkandla this past weekend, managed the volatile situation as best as they could, avoiding a situation in which deliberate acts of provocation may have resulted in bloodshed, using human shields. The SAPS must, in carrying out its public order responsibilities, in all circumstances use restraint and prevent unnecessary loss of life.

k) …’

Referring to the African Claims of 1943, the ANC reached back to its long struggle for fundamental human rights, thus rejecting the EFF argument that the current constitution was a sell-out or a compromise. It was a choice, which must now be respected by all, even liberation fighters and party colleagues of many years (like Zuma, Magashule and Niehaus).

There is a particular irony to this statement. It was presented to the media by Deputy Secretary General Jessie Duarte. Earlier this year a recording was leaked of her arguing in a meeting of the Top 6 that ‘a solution’ must be found for Mr Zuma. Now she had to present a statement where exactly the opposite is happening – Mr Zuma is left on his own to deal with his legal problems within the constitution. She has expressed concerns about the Zondo Commission as has her colleague ANC Chair Gwede Mantashe. Yet, the statement specifically endorsed the Zondo Commission.

So what?

  • The NEC statement makes it clear the ANC has closed ranks on the Zuma issue, indirectly also closing ranks behind Ramaphosa. His patient and principled leadership has paid off.
  • Through this whole long painful episode South Africa has learnt what it means to live under a constitution: equal before the law, supremacy of court orders, protest to your heart’s desire but respect for lives, settle differences through peaceful protest. It is what Alexis de Tocqueville famously called ‘the habits of the heart’ or rules of the game. The SA habits of the heart just got a little bit stronger.
  • This is an important step in moving from a liberation movement to a political party. 
  • In short, a good day to be a South African!

JP Landman

Political Analyst