By Obadiah Mailafia

LAST week, Wednesday July 7, former South African President, Jacob Zuma, finally handed himself over to the police. He is to serve a 15-month prison sentence for contempt of court. It has been a painful and heart-rending saga. The one word that comes to mind is: “disgrace”.

It reminds me of the novel of the same title by the South African Nobel laureate, J. M. Coetzee. A 1999 fable spun around an English professor, David Lurie, who is dismissed from his job for sleeping with a vulnerable student, Melanie Isaacs.  And to make matters worse, he falsifies her grades even after she stops attending classes.

Coetzee has the man ruminating thus: “So it has come, the day of testing. Without warning, without fanfare, it is here, and he is in the middle of it. In his chest his heart hammers so hard that it too, in its dumb way, must know. How will they stand up to the testing, he and his heart?”

A former freedom fighter and former head of Umkhonto we Sizwe who was once imprisoned by the Apartheid regime, Zuma will obviously have enough time to ruminate on the chain of events that have brought him to this sorry end.

Jacob Gedleyihlekisa Zuma, 79, was President of South Africa from May 9, 2009 to February 14, 2018, when he was forced out of office by members of his own party who had tired of the embarrassing succession of corruption scandals. In 2005, he was charged and later acquitted of raping the daughter of a family friend. In that same year, he was charged with corruption over a multi-billion-dollar arms deal.

The charges were dropped shortly before he was sworn in as president in 2009. In 2016, a court ruled that he had been in breach of his oath of office after using government money to upgrade his private home in Nkandla. He had to refund the money. There is a subsisting 12-count charge involving money-laundering, corruption, fraud and racketeering that has been levelled against him by the National Prosecuting Authority.

In September 2010, I met President Zuma in Brussels where I served as an international civil servant. I rather liked him. A female colleague remarked that she could understand why women would fall for him. She claimed she found him”charming and sweet”.He came across as a man of gravitas and simplicitas, with the noblesse oblige of the Zulu warrior-prince.

Consider this different scenario: I found myself sitting directly behind the late President Robert Mugabe during the December 2012 Summit of African, Caribbean and Pacific leaders in Malabo, Equatorial Guinea. He reminded me of a sadistic village headmaster. An enigma shrouded in a mystery. He could be as motionless as a Roman statue; his gaze as cold and distant as the Sphinxes of Pharaonic Egypt.

He pretended to be sleeping throughout, but when his turn to speak came, he not only summarised what everybody had said, his delivery was magisterial, with an elocution reminiscent of the best of Upper England. Mugabe’s father had been one of the courtiers in the palace of King Lobengula. Raised by the Jesuits, he was a star pupil in one of the best secondary schools in what was then Southern Rhodesia. He later earned a degree from Fort Hare University in South Africa and four London university degrees by distant learning. The difference between the two could not have been starker.

Jacob Zuma sprang from the ranks of the unwashed hoi-polloi. Whatever he picked up by way of an education was from the trenches, unlike ANC leaders such as Z. K. Matthews, Albert Luthuli, Oliver Tambo, Nelson Mandela, Joe Slovo and Thabo Mbeki, who were intellectuals.

On December 9, 2015, President Zuma fired his Finance Minister, Nhlanhla Nene. The man was apparently opposed to a financially ruinous one trillion Rand nuclear power deal with the Russians. South Africa has faced severe power shortages due to load shedding, operational issues, and ageing equipment.

The national power company, Eskom, reveals that it is barely able to sustain 13,000 MW of its nominal capacity of 47,000 MW. David Van Rooyen was brought in as a replacement for Nene. The Johannesburg Stock Exchange lost a staggering R500 billion. The president was forced to replace Van Rooyen with Pravin Gordhan.

In March 2016, Deputy Finance Minister, Mcebisi Jonas, revealed that he was offered R600 million to back the nuclear project by the Guptas, a South African business family. The Public Protector, Professor Thulisile Nomkhosi Madonsela, launched an investigation. The Public Protector is an independent Ombudsman mandated to support and strengthen constitutional democracy by investigating, reporting and remedying “improper conduct in all state affairs”. 

The ensuing report, “The State of Capture” indicted the leadership for allowing the Guptas to wield such undue influence in a manner that amounted to “state capture”. A Commission of Inquiry was duly set up, headed by Justice Roy Zondo as Chairman. The Commission began its work in August 2018, with more than 40 witnesses testifying. Astonishingly, members of his own cabinet were among those who testified against Jacob Zuma.

In July 2019, whilst appearing before the Commission, he deflected most of the questions whilst complaining that the process had become “politicised”. Zuma and his lawyer accused Judge Zondo of a conflict of interest based on the fact that he had fathered a child with the younger sister of one of Zuma’s ex-wives. The judge insisted that the relationship had never in any way affected his ability to perform his duties in a fair and objective manner.

In January 2020, another summons was issued for him to appear before the Commission. His lawyer claimed that the former president was taken ill. The Commission applied to the Constitutional Court to compel him to appear before it. The Supreme Court frowned on his failure to appear before the commission being “antithetical to our concept of public order”.

In March 2021, the Commission applied to the Constitutional Court to sentence Jacob Zuma for two years in prison for contempt of court. Zuma went ahead to issue a statement accusing the judicature of “judicial dictatorship”. In the following month of April, the Constitutional Court sent a memorandum to Zuma asking to know what he himself would consider to be an appropriate sentence for contempt of court, to which he responded: “I cannot assist the court to violate my constitutional rights by telling them what kind of punishment they must impose”.

On June 29, the Constitutional Court found him guilty of contempt of court and sentenced him to 15 months in prison. For several weeks he had refused to turn himself in. Many of his supporters had made a human shield at his country home of Nkandla to prevent him from being arrested. At the end, he had to do the right thing.

Jacob Zuma should never have been President of South Africa. He had neither the ability nor the discipline for the job. And he was bereft of vision for his country. And typical of many an African leader, he could not distinguish between the public treasury and his own private account. He surrounded himself with all sorts of shady reptiles who called themselves “businessmen”.

Men whose sole objective was to capture the state and to use it for their own avaricious purposes. His follies rolled back the gains that had been made in the New South Africa. An insult to the collective memory of the great men and women who had sacrificed so much for the liberation of the country.

It has been said that a little education is a dangerous thing. I would add that a little education with a deficit of virtue ethics is a recipe for disaster. Jacob Zuma could not give what he did not have.

The lessons are clear: Successful governance and leadership in our twenty-first century requires ability and character. Unfortunately, succeeding generations of Nigerian “king-makers” have tended to prefer weaker men for leadership, in the belief that they are easier to manipulate.

Men of low degree can only pull nations down to the lowest common denominator of their own primitive notions. And no nation ever rises above the mindset of its leaders. In these universal truths lies the path of hope and redemption for the teeming millions of our people.


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