Sun. Nov 17th, 2019

Against deflections: Is Jacob Zuma really a victim of political warfare?

Jacob ZumaInstead of trying to deflect from the case at hand, the defence should start entertaining the idea of a more cogent argument for why a stay should be granted.

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Former president Jacob  Zuma is back in court. The former president and his team of lawyers are arguing for a stay of persecution following years of delay in court proceedings.

The former president is facing ongoing charges of 783 counts of corruption, racketeering, money laundering and fraud. These are all related to the Strategic Defence Package (infamously known as the Arms Deal), a multi-billion rand acquisition of military equipment, supplied by the French defence company Thales in 19999.

Jacob Zuma: The corruption saga continues

On Monday, Zuma’s legal team submitted 164 pages worth of arguments, outlining the defence’s appeal for a permanent stay of persecution.

The case has a long and tumultuous history; charges were dismissed in 2009 but reinstated in March last year after the Supreme Court of Appeal (SCA) upheld a ruling that said the initial decision to drop the case was irrational and unfounded.

This was the fifth time that the former president appeared in court since the charges against him were reinstated in March last year. He denied that he was guilty of wrong-doing, and put forward the claim that he was the victim of a devious and politically motivated character assassination ploy.

The Kwa-Zulu Natal (KZN) High Court in Pietermaritzburg heard the opening statements from the former president’s legal team. Advocate Muzi Sikhakhane had initially applied to present his opening argument in his home language of IsiZulu. He was, however, not permitted to do so, as per Chief Justice Mogoeng Mogoeng’s 2017 declaration of English being the language record, to maintain some form of commonality between presiding officers.

Legal defence hinges on diversion tactics

While, Sikhakhane might have presented this for the sake of convenience – given that Zulu is the most prominently spoken language in Pietermaritzburg is isiZulu – one cannot take this decision at face-value.

It is undoubtedly a decision permeated with political meaning. It is similar to when Zuma opted to deliver his testimony in Zulu during his rape trial in 2007, despite the fact that the court proceedings had occurred in English and that he is fluent in the language.

While this, again, might have been done for purposes of convenience, it shifted the tone of the trial and made it seem as if he was being put on trial for his tradition, instead of the crime he was accused of.

The president and his supporters mobilised support using his ethnic appeal as a traditional and proud member of the Zulu tribe. The president has long projected himself as someone who cares about the poor and about traditional values, in ways that many African National Congress (ANC) leaders, namely Thabo Mbeki, have not formally done.

Indeed, in the lead-up to the 2009 elections, Zuma was portrayed as a victim, using his humble roots to project himself as a man of the people. His ascent to power was heralded as a sign of a shift towards sympathetic and pro-poor governance. This is despite the damning corruption allegations levelled against the president.

Likewise, this is what is happening now. His team are making another deliberate and strategic choice. One that is embedded with heavy political connotations and implications that are designed to project Zuma as a victim of an ethnic and politically motivated ploy.

This is compounded by the Sikhakhane maintaining that he “was refused the right to speak my language”.

It is not just a matter of convenience but a strategy that says something to those who hear it: Zuma once, again, is a victim of a great political conspiracy.

This time, it is rooted in revelations unmasked in the “spy-tapes”.

However, if one is interpreting this from an angle of identity politics, he is saying that Zuma is a victim of a conspiracy spearheaded by Cyril Ramaphosa using Apartheid institutions, designed to dehumanise and stigmatise him as a proud Zulu man among a largely Xhosa dominated political elite.

Jacob ‘The Vulnerable’ Zuma

In doing this, the defence is trying to reverse the role of Zuma the accused, to Zuma the vulnerable, and thereby remove the focus of the case from the man to the shortcomings of the NPA.  In fact, outside the court Zuma took the time to address his supporters, maintaining that his civil rights were being violated and that the case must be thrown out, before belting out his signature anthem, Umshini Wam.

His lawyer, Sikhakhane, went further, arguing that the treatment of the former president under the hands of the NPA was classifiable as an act of “mob justice” and, that the accusations levelled against Zuma, were motivated by his resounding unpopularity with the South African populous. 

He went further, accusing the elusive Shaun Abrahams of being biased. He even added that the public’s hatred of the man made us all blind to the nefarious ways in which the NPA treated him, and thereby violated his rights.

While it shows that the former president might be hurt by the reinstating of the case, this is not a legally cogent argument. It is incoherent, performative and yet another example of Zuma and his defence trying to manipulate the public and court into thinking that he is being penalised for his identity, rather than his accusations.

He is not being bullied; exercising the integrity of state institutions is not a form of bullying.

So far, this is nothing more than political theatrics, designed to mobilise those who support uMsholozi, but do not hold water in court. Trying to shift the blame to the inadequate handling of the case by the NPA also does not hold water in a court of law.

In conclusion

Zuma is not back in court because the South African public hates him,  rather he is there because the court believes that there are significant grounds for his involvement, in what is the biggest corruption scandal in the country to date, to stand trial. Moreover, it is expected that anyone who is purported to have violated the law in such an egregious manner will be subjected to some form of stigmatisation – it is not new.

The defence believes that this could be a precedent to dissuade the NPA from abusing its power in similar cases in the future. It is quite ironic that the defence wants the charges to be dropped because they are motivated by politics, but in the same grain; Zuma tried to undermine and manipulate state organs, including the NPA for his own personal motivations.

Perhaps it is time that, instead of trying to deflect from the case at hand, the defence should start entertaining the idea of a more cogent argument for why a stay should be granted. We will see in the next few days.

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of TheSouthAfrica.com.

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