The Zuma jail sentence

LAST week, the immediate former president of South Africa, Mr. Jacob Zuma, 79, was sent to jail by the country’s Constitutional Court for contempt. Mr. Zuma is to stay behind bars for the next 15 months, and there are still pending charges that he must face upon his return from prison. Mr Zuma’s current fate is of course not fortuitous: he has always been a  lawless and amoral leader. In April 2016, for instance, he was forced to apologise to South Africans after dragging the country through the tortuous route of what he himself referred to as “confusion and frustration” occasioned by his refusal to admit blame for diverting public funds to sponsor the upgrade of his country house to the tune of $15 million. And until South Africa’s highest court ordered him to refund the misappropriated money within 105 days, Zuma actually stonewalled.

As we warned at the time, it was doubtful that he could take his country any further than his predecessors, Mr. Nelson Mandela and Mr Thabo Mbeki, did. We noted that if the late Nelson Mandela, his incarceration for 27 years notwithstanding, could muster enough urbaneness to become a global leader and icon, it beggared belief that all the African National Congress (ANC) could offer down the succession line was Zuma,  a provincial thief who stole $15 million to upgrade his country house and then waited for the highest court in the land to alert him to his gross larceny. But all of that is history, and South Africa is currently in the throes of yet another looting spree and brigandage by Zuma’s supporters.

Arguably, it is a rare phenomenon in Africa for a former president to be disciplined by a government formed by members of his own party. It definitely is a strong statement from the South African establishment that the country is founded on strong institutions that are poised to deliver justice irrespective of whose ox is gored. Elsewhere on the continent, things are spectacularly different. Former presidents are usually venerated to the point of deification, until it becomes virtually impossible to rein them in even if they are as evil as sin and death, and the administrations they headed had the worst of impunities. In such circumstances, society is imperiled, doomed to stagnation if not retrogression.

We recall with indignation, the Oputa Panel of reconciliation set up in the early days of the Fourth Republic in this country, and to which several people who had a thing or two to do with previous administrations were summoned. Former leaders of the country shunned the panel. They would rather approach the courts for exparte injunctions than obey the panel. The panel was meant to deal with issues that had constituted angst and discomfort for the people during military rule, and it was difficult to fathom the leaders’ reluctance to put in an appearance even when the then president, Chief Olusegun Obasanjo, himself a former Head of State, honoured the panel’s summons. Such condescending attitudes towards public institutions only serve to weaken them. Individuals should not tower above the society, but that is precisely what happens in this clime where people are given unearned recognition, which tends to foul national processes and defeat national interest.

One notorious feature of the African continent is the preponderance of weak social institutions. This has bred many conflicts. Other African countries certainly have a thing or two to learn from South Africa. Mr. Zuma tried to exert pressure on the system using familial and ethnic ties to swing the arm of justice, but he had to review his tactics when he saw that the judiciary meant to be taken seriously and was going to indulge no sacred cows. In fact, the jail where he is serving is located in his province. We hope that this serves as a deterrent to others who may have similar inclinations.

African societies have to evolve from the Hobbesian state of nature into the modern world with strong social institutions that are poised to deliver justice and equity to the people irrespective of their positions on the social ladder. Except this is done very fast, the continent will be filled with backwater countries whose citizens are marked down for discrimination by the rest of the world.

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