By Muyiwa Adetiba
A President in jail is not a common sight. An African President in jail is even a rarer sight. A glimpse of a President, sitting or former, White, Black or Brown, in a prison uniform staying in line for food is not a sight to behold.
The sight of Jacob Zuma, the fourth President of a democratic South Africa, arguably the most advanced country in black Africa if not the whole of Africa, in a prison jumpsuit, queueing stoically behind another prisoner for his food ration, must evoke some feelings no matter how hard hearted one is. It is the ultimate lesson in the transience of power.
One minute you are surrounded by courtiers. One minute you have the world’s most powerful people at the end of your phone. One minute you have the wherewithal ‘to do and undo’ in the affairs of your country. One minute you can have some of your country’s prettiest women as escorts. The next minute you are stripped completely of power, privacy, and dignity. You can’t even make a phone call to your wife without permission.
It is a mighty, unimaginable crash from the height of political power to the depth of a lowly commoner; from the splendour of presidential palace to an austere, dingy prison room. I wonder what goes through Zuma’s mind as he contemplates his new life among criminals – some of whom he might have played a role in putting there. I wonder if the inmates treat him with respect or insult him at every turn. I wonder if he gets special treatments or he is subjected to the same harsh rules as others. But no matter how he is treated, the hardest thing to adjust to more than the loss of privacy, or dignity, is the total loss of freedom. When the prison door closes behind you, it closes out your life as you know it. You begin to learn new lessons about life…..
At seventy nine and as a two term President, Jacob Zuma should have earned the right to indulge in the things he loves – culture, tradition, politics, dancing and women. He should have earned the right to put his grandchildren on his knees and teach them the history of the apartheid struggle of which he was a worthy participant and of African traditions of which he was an acclaimed celebrator. He should have earned the right to write his memoirs to celebrate the heights that fate propelled him into given his modest background.
Or he should have earned the right to simply put his feet on the coffee table and admire his beautiful chandeliers or potter around his elegant house to enjoy the wonders which the allegedly misappropriated funds have wrought. Instead he is lying on his back in a dimly lit prison room staring at the stark ceiling as he ponders why his sunset years have darkened into an uncertain future and his dreams have turned into nightmares.
He may still write his memoirs. But it will be of a different hue, tainted by his jail term however politically motivated it is. He may still tell the story of his imprisonment. But it will not be as a prisoner of conscience like Nelson Mandela, his friend and mentor. Should he tell his story honestly, it would be a story of political intrigues, corruption, impunity, abuse of due processes and disregard for the rule of law. Yet Zuma’s story is the story of African leaders in and out of politics. The things they accuse incumbents of while in opposition are the very things they would indulge in once they assume the reins of power. Rare is that African leader who is not high handed or inpatient with due processes and rule of law. Rare is that African leader who has not blurred the line between private purse and public purse. The very tools that make democracy succeed as a form of government are often treated as expedient by many of our leaders.
Opponents or the media who harp on them are treated as irritants. There must be something in our genes that makes accountability difficult for our leaders either in political or corporate world. We just don’t like to be held accountable. Not by law; not by norms; not by morals. Even church and social club leaders find accountability a difficult hurdle to leap over. The situation is not helped by followers who fawn over these leaders expecting to benefit through proximity to them. Or people who read ethnicity into calls for accountability.
It might be a defence to state that democracy as practiced by the Western world was not our traditional way of governance. We had our feudal and monarchical systems. Both operated largely on a master/ servant relationship. Traditionally, our Kings don’t do wrong – until they do wrong. They were allowed to take the best of the spoils as long as they let us take the crumbs.
They were allowed to be rich as long as they didn’t make us poorer. They were allowed to take the fairest of women as long as they didn’t take our wives. The caveat was that they had to be just, equitable and empathetic. The Kings were second only to the gods. Whereas in a democracy, we are all equal joiners. We come together to pick a man among us to lead us subject to the rules of engagement. Those rules of engagement are largely encapsulated in the constitution and the statute books. He is also accountable to us. These are concepts our leaders pay lip service to when seeking office but find difficult to adhere to once they assume office.
Jacob Zuma is a traditionalist. Like many African leaders, he is confused by the enormous powers of traditional African leadership and the limitations of democratic leadership. He cannot understand why an elected leader (King) has to answer to an appointed official. He cannot understand being subject to the dictates of a judge he could hire and fire.
Neither can he understand how refurbishing his home with alleged State funds should be a crime. After all, he was the Head of State. Jacob Zuma is said to be a nice man. Even according to some of his critics. I read an article by one of those in opposition who hounded him into prison. She had nothing but nice things to say about his person.
According to her, he always felt a deep empathy for those, including opposition, going through tough times and often tried to connect with them. It is unfortunate that this had to happen to him. But it has been long coming. African leaders just have to learn to subject themselves to the rules of engagement.