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Former President Jacob Zuma will serve a 15-month jail term for contempt of court, after failing to cooperate with enquiries unto state capture and corruption during his tenure as president. Listen below as Gideon Rachman, the chief foreign affairs commentator of the Financial Times, talks to lawyer and newspaper columnist Judith February about whether Zuma’s sentencing marks a turning point for South Africa and its people. – Jarryd Neves
Listen to the full interview here.
Judith February on the judgment:
It’s a crucial judgment for many reasons. It sends out a clear message that nobody, not even a former president, is above the law. I may point out at this stage that when Mandela was president, this was a message he tried to send very early in his presidency, when he was called as a witness in the court case. People were outraged at the time that Madiba, with his godlike status, could be called to account in a witness box. He was doing that to indicate equality before the law. That everyone, no matter how powerful you are, needs to be held to account. Certainly, that is what the Constitutional Court judgment last week signified. The language that was used by the court also was really firm in drawing a line in the sand.
What the court was doing was really reinforcing its own authority. And as then Acting Chief Justice Sisi Khampepe said, the job of the judiciary is “a lofty and a lonely one.” The Constitutional Court doesn’t have an army that it can muster. It depends on everyone, no matter how powerful you are, adhering to its authority. She was really clear in her language to indicate just how egregious Jacob Zuma’s conduct was, when he was cocking a snook at the judiciary and also said the commission of inquiry into state capture – which, ironically, he himself had set up. It was powerful for those two reasons particularly. But also, I think because there was a very strong black woman who was delivering this judgment with such force and such clarity of mind. The symbolism of that will stay with us for a long time.
On the ‘wasted years’ of Zuma’s presidency:
We had almost a decade of state capture, what we call now the nine wasted years. On President Zuma’s watch, there was large scale looting of the state. What Jacob Zuma did was, he brought our institutions to the edge. He was always pushing us towards a crisis. It’s not the first time, incidentally, that he’s been found to be constitutionally delinquent. In fact, in 2016, the Constitutional Court similarly ordered him to adhere to constitutional precepts.
There again, the Chief Justice had very strong words about the role of the Head of State in preserving, protecting and defending the Constitution. This constitutional delinquency was part of his presidency. There’s something at the heart of the South African society which is robust [and] resilient – a powerful media, strong civil society, which really formed a bedrock against the impunity of the Zuma years, and I dare say got us through the nine wasted years to the point where we are now trying to rebuild from the self-inflicted wound of corruption and state capture during the Zuma years.
On the economic damage:
The economic damage was severe. South Africa is said to have lost, over those nine wasted years, about U$70 billion through corruption and state capture. Also, we had a growth rate which barely exceeded 1.5% per annum. Unemployment rates skyrocketed to about 28%. That is the narrow definition of employment – it excludes the number of people who have given up looking for a job. The debt as a percentage of GDP ballooned to about 53% towards the end of 2017. There are very real consequences to Jacob Zuma’s corruption. Also, the levels of inequality have risen and the gap between those who have and those who don’t has increased exponentially.
Apart from that, we’ve also had hollowed out institutions, so those state-owned enterprises and government enterprises – Eskom, Transnet, Denel – those institutions were all looted through contracts to Jacob Zuma and his associates and are now hollow shells. Part of the Ramaphosa presidency is about rebuilding that damage. But also, revenue collection came under pressure during the Zuma years as well. Far more individuals who were skirting ways in which to pay tax. And also, of course, if you have an ailing economy, you’re not going to have the revenue collection that you should have. In 2018, we were in a recession. So these years of state capture had very real consequences for ordinary people. Government wages were way down. The repercussions of that are serious and we are still busy trying to dig ourselves out of that hole.
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