Zondo, Zuma and violence in Kwa-Zulu Natal

Pat Sidley, IBA Southern Africa CorrespondentFriday 16 July 2021

South Africa’s army and police are on the streets of two of South Africa’s provinces as violence and looting sweep Kwa-Zulu Natal and Gauteng. So far seven people have died and several hundred have been arrested in what started out as protests but degenerated into widescale violence, looting and destruction.

This comes in the wake of the arrest and imprisonment of South Africa’s former president Jacob Zuma who was sentenced to 15 months in prison for contempt of court when he refused several times to present himself at the Commission of Inquiry into State Capture which is investigating large scale corruption, much of which occurred while Zuma was president of the country. He has faced allegations of enormous amounts of corruption, though he has consistently denied any wrongdoing.

He not only refused several times to come to the Commission to testify but walked out of a session that he had attended which was chaired by the (now) acting Chief Justice Raymond Zondo. While violence played out, the Constitutional Court heard a formal bid Zuma has made for the rescission of the sentence.

Mr Zuma’s behaviour was challenging the legitimacy of the courts and ultimately the rule of law

Pieter Steyn
Director, Werksmans and Chair, LEX Africa

Born free

Kwa-Zulu Natal is the province in which Zuma was born and is the home of Zulu-speaking people in the country. President Cyril Ramaphosa has condemned the evident ethnicity in the protests and violence that erupted after the 79-year-old Zuma was arrested and jailed last week. Gauteng is the smallest though most populace province, which houses Johannesburg.

Much of South Africa had celebrated the sentence and incarceration of Zuma, but a portion of his supporters and others took to the streets in protest. Shopping centres and other buildings have been destroyed and looted and scores of trucks and other vehicles torched on South Africa’s main arterial freeways and other roads. This has cut off one of the largest and busiest ports in South Africa in Durban.

While police claim to have been prepared for protests, they appear not to have expected the size and severity of these which have seen millions of pounds worth of damage throughout the province. The army was called in on Monday 12 July.

The amounts involved in the corruption hearings are astronomical. The extensive looting of government coffers and institutions are estimated at some £66bn which amounts to 20 per cent of the country’s GDP (measured in 2020). The Commission is dealing with a portion of this sum of money – but Zuma is alleged to have been associated with further corruption being dealt with by the courts, while he held senior positions in the government and was president, which he denies.

Contempt of court in South Africa rarely ends in a jail sentence and this is considered to be particularly harsh. In addition to Zuma’s refusal to co-operate with the Inquiry, he had also accused the Chair of the Commission, judge Raymond Zondo, of being biased against him and asked for him to recuse himself. Judge Zondo is at present the acting Chief Justice of the Constitutional Court and has been its deputy until now. Zuma repeatedly criticised the judge and the Commission and formally asked the judge to recuse himself from the Commission, which he declined to do.

Last minute attempts to stay the execution of the sentence have failed, thus far.

With Zuma in jail – being held in solitary confinement in a medical facility in the prison situated in a small town called Escourt in KwaZulu-Natal near his homestead in Nkandla – one would have thought this show would have drawn to a close. The violent protests and the rescission case have put paid to a peaceful end to the preceding drama.

Zuma, who is Zulu speaking, draws much of his support from KwaZulu-Natal, traditionally the province that has most Zulu speaking people in the country. For the eight days between the judgement on June 29 and midnight on July 4 (the last minute to hand himself over, according to the court order) armed supporters gathered outside his homestead threatening violence if the police entered in order to arrest Zuma.

The Order of the Constitutional Court gave Zuma five days to present himself at a police station, failing which the minister of police and the commissioner of police were to see to it within three days, that he was arrested and brought to a prison. The standoff between Zuma, and the police lasted until midnight as the deadline was due to expire and he was said to have handed himself over to police at that point.

The constitutional Court judgement – with seven judges in the majority and a minority judgement of two judges – was widely hailed in the rest of the country. ‘It is a landmark judgement. For the first time, the Constitutional Court has sentenced someone to prison for contempt,’ says Pieter Steyn, Director of Werksmans and former co-Chair of the IBA Antitrust Committee. ‘Mr Zuma’s behaviour was challenging the legitimacy of the courts and ultimately the rule of law.’

Steyn is unequivocal: ‘The Constitutional Court has unequivocally enforced and upheld the rule of law and the fundamental principle that everyone (including a former president) is equal before the law.’ Steyn says Zuma was the ‘master of his own misfortune’ and that his problems were self-inflicted

The reasons for unusually stiff penalty for contempt of court in South Africa are to be found in the Constitutional Court’s judgment on June 29 written by (then) Acting Chief Justice Sisi Khampepe. Referring to Zuma’s repeated verbal attacks on the court and the judiciary, she says, ‘Never before has this court’s authority and legitimacy been subjected to the kinds of attacks that Mr Zuma has elected to launch against it and its members.’

She continues, ‘Never before has the judicial process been so threatened. Accordingly it is appropriate for this court to exercise its jurisdiction and assert its special authority as the apex court and ultimate guardian of the constitution, to the exclusion of the aegis of any other court.’

The judgment says: ‘Not only is Mr Zuma’s behaviour so outlandish as to warrant a disposal of ordinary procedure, but it is becoming increasingly evident that the damage being caused by his ongoing assaults on the integrity of the judicial process cannot be cured by an order down the line. I must be stopped now. Indeed if we do not intervene immediately to send a clear message to the public that this conduct stands to be rebuked in the strongest of terms, there is a real and imminent risk that a mockery will be made of this court and the judicial process in the eyes of the public.’

Judge Khampepe continues, ‘The vigour with which Mr Zuma is peddling his disdain of this court and the judicial process carries the further risk that he will inspire or incite others to similarly defy this court, the judicial process and the rule of law.’

This fall from grace in Zuma’s life comes after a history of anti-apartheid resistance. He was born in a rural area and had very little schooling. Early on in his adult years he had participated in the then-banned African National Congress which earned him a 10 year sentence on South Africa’s notorious Robben Island which he served along with the late Nelson Mandela. When he was released, he fled the country and went into exile returning eventually to participate in the newly democratic government in South Africa, ultimately becoming its president.

Image: 360b / Shutterstock.com