Why Zuma is the wrong candidate
Although South Africa's high court today ruled the fraud and corruption charges against Jacob Zuma, leader of the country's ruling African National Congress, were invalid because prosecutors had failed to follow proper procedure, the country and the ANC will be better off if Zuma lets go of his all-consuming obsession to become the country's next president.
Although South Africa's high court today ruled the fraud and corruption charges against Jacob Zuma, leader of the country's ruling African National Congress, were invalid because prosecutors had failed to follow proper procedure, the country and the ANC will be better off if Zuma lets go of his all-consuming obsession to become the country's next president. As president of the ANC, Zuma is in a position to be proposed by the party's members at a yet-to-be-scheduled national nominations conference of the party, required by its constitution. South Africa's President Thabo Mbeki's second, and last, term ends next year. Judge Chris Nicholson's decision in the Pietermaritzburg high court today clears a significant hurdle for 66-year-old Zuma, to secure the party's nomination as presidential candidate.
Such is the ANC's political dominance, that whoever the party chooses will be assured of victory in next year's general elections. Zuma faced 12 charges of fraud, corruption and racketeering, including receiving bribes totalling $500,000 from arms dealers. Importantly, Judge Nicholson emphasised that he was not giving a verdict on whether Zuma was innocent or guilty and said prosecutors were free to bring charges again. However, this is the second favourable judgment for Zuma on procedural grounds, and the increased political pressure is now likely to come from Zuma's buoyant backers, who will make it very difficult for prosecutors to press their charges.
Zuma is now preparing a petition to have his case permanently dismissed, arguing that his right to a fair trial has now been irrevocably compromised. Yet, not defending himself in court will forever leave a cloud of suspicion over Zuma. Judge Nicholson ruled that the national prosecuting authority should have consulted Zuma – the basis of the ANC leader's complaint – before they pressed corruption charges against him in 2007. Mbeki fired Zuma from his post as deputy president in 2005 when the latter's financial advisor, Schabir Shaik, was found guilty of bribing Zuma and given a 15-year jail sentence. What is not in dispute is that in power, Mbeki and his associates routinely abused public institutions to launch vendettas against their critics. Judge Nicholson rightly said as much in his judgment.
Yet Zuma's supporters have attacked the judiciary, democratic institutions, the media and critics to such an extent that the country's not-yet-consolidated constitutional system, institutions and values are at the same risk now as they were from Mbeki's previous manipulation of them. South Africa's most effective crime-fighting unit, the directorate for special prosecutions, called the Scorpions, which brought the corruption charges against Zuma in the first place, is about to be closed, following a Zuma dominated-ANC leadership decision, that they have been used as part of a political conspiracy to prevent him from becoming president, and so must be abolished. Yet South Africa is facing a terrible crime wave. Parliament is supposed to decide whether to close the Scorpions, rather than the ANC, which appears to remain largely ineffective under Zuma, as it was under Mbeki.
The answer to the abuse of security and intelligence institutions is not to close down the most effective ones, but to increase their democratic accountability. Furthermore, although Zuma was acquitted of rape in 2006, the appalling statements he made in his defence make him unsuitable for the South African presidency. In a country struggling with high incidents of violence against women, he claimed that he could see by the way a woman sat or wore clothes that they were looking for sex and that he was obliged to return in kind. Throughout the hearing of the rape case in court, his accuser was vilified outside the courthouse by Zuma's supporters: effigies of her were burned and she was called a bitch. Zuma was remarkably silent about all this.
Making Zuma president of South Africa will not end the leadership vacuum in the ANC and the country, but may actually worsen it. The ANC leadership must offer the job of presidential candidate to either the ANC deputy president, Kgalema Motlanthe, the party's treasurer, Mathews Phosa, NEC member Cyril Ramaphosa or former Gauteng premier Tokyo Sexwale. If necessary, Zuma could remain president of the party. The lingering questions over his involvement in corruption, if he does not answer those allegations fully in court, and the affects of his supporters' attacks on the judiciary, democratic institutions and the media, will continue to paralyse the government, erode public confidence and undermine democracy.
The urgent need for the rejuvenation of South Africa's democracy, political culture and institutions will require fresh ideas, inclusivity, and a different cast of leaders at the top. Above all, to tackle the pervasive air of corruption, total honesty is needed. Zuma is too compromised. The real reason why more reasonable members of the ANC left have embraced him, is their fear of being marginalised and the issues they stand up for, including the pressing issue of poverty, marginalised with them. The marginalisation of poverty and the sidelining of talent of all of South Africa's people, whatever their ideology or colour, which have sadly occurred under Mbeki's presidency, are the real issues that must be addressed. South Africa needs a less divisive and more unifying leader, and a clean break from the two factions – Mbeki and Zuma – currently paralysing the ANC, government and South Africa. All four leaders, Motlanthe, Phosa, Ramaphosa and Sexwale, also present a clear generational change, and the fresh blood and renewal we need.