Opinion Piece

Judith February: Letting Zuma off the hook is not Ramaphosa’s prerogative

It seems as if South Africans are waiting for the white smoke to rise from atop the Union Buildings telling us that the ANC has given President Zuma the proverbial boot. The ANC’s communication may be as opaque as the Vatican’s, but we are not electing a pope.

It’s been a very confusing week. It started with the on again-off again State of the Nation Address (SONA), followed by the postponed NEC meeting and then the postponed walkabout which ANC officials were going to make around Cape Town. The walkabout seemed like a non sequitur in a week that has been rife with speculation. Everyone has a view and a conspiracy theory on when Zuma is leaving and what deal he is trying to strike about this “transition”.

The speculation is almost too much to bear and is often wildly inaccurate, or one gets a sense that Zuma or Ramaphosa’s people are flying kites in the media. Thus far, what we know officially is that a special NEC meeting has been called for Monday 12 February and we have no definite date for the SONA yet. We also know that the Budget has to go ahead on 21 February because postponing it would have a disastrous knock-on effect on the economy. At the Mandela Centenary celebrations in Cape Town, Ramaphosa again stressed that the special NEC meeting would deal with the transition with “care and purpose”.

In a statement released by Ramaphosa, he acknowledged the “anxiety” in the country surrounding Zuma’s future. He goes on to say:

Both President Zuma and myself are aware that our people want and deserve closure. The constructive process we have embarked on offers the greatest opportunity to conclude this matter without discord or division. Throughout this process, I am guided by the principle that the interests and needs of the South African people are paramount.”

Ramaphosa is right. South Africans do deserve closure. The past 10 years have taken an exacting toll on the country, not only in economic terms but in the way in which our democratic institutions have been weakened. We have watched as Zuma laughed his way through virtually every Parliamentary Question Time, how he evaded and yes, lied, about the Nkandla expenditure and breached the Constitution. For that alone, he ought to have been fired by the ANC. But we knew better than to expect the ANC to do the right thing. For there are too many others complicit in Zuma’s corruption.

And therein lies the rub. When former President Thabo Mbeki was recalled by the ANC, he fell on his sword. He accepted his fate and whatever one thinks of Mbeki or his years in office, he took the disciplined route in the end. Zuma clearly has no such appetite for that given that he faces the real possibility of being charged and convicted of fraud and corruption. So do some of his Cabinet ministers who acted with his imprimatur.

If a deal is being struck, the problem for Zuma is that there are certain processes Ramaphosa cannot guarantee. All the speculation that Zuma is demanding immunity from prosecution is plain wrong. That is not Ramaphosa’s to promise or to give. Our Constitution does not allow for presidential immunity. Then there has been wild speculation about Zuma turning state witness in terms of the Criminal Procedure Act. Again, this is not Ramaphosa’s to offer. He is not the National Director of Public Prosecutions, and state witness arrangements can only be made once a case has been carefully considered by the NDPP. No such offers can be made or accepted. It is important that there is clarity regarding this.

We are also told via this rumour mill in overdrive that Zuma would like the state to pay his legal fees ad infinitum. Curiously, if this is true it is probably most revealing of quite how scared Zuma is about the criminal charges he is likely to face. But citizens cannot and should not be expected to foot his future legal bills. That would be unprecedented. Enough public money has been spent on Michael Hulley’s conflicting roles as Zuma’s personal attorney and as the lawyer in the Presidency.

The speculation will continue apace for as long as the ANC does not communicate adequately. The problem thus far has been that the ANC has treated the “Zuma exit” as an internal party squabble. It is not. Even Parliament’s internal processes were subverted in an effort to buy time and coax Zuma into leaving.

Apart from that, however, we have the right to know what is being negotiated in our name. It affects us all and has profound consequences for our country’s future and the way in which elected representatives are held to account for their misdeeds.

So, while we wait for the smoke to rise above the Union Buildings, as citizens we must insist that this deal is transparent and in line with the Constitution.

Zuma has written his own undignified exit and his Presidency will end ignominiously. Ramaphosa cannot do anything about that. And nor should he. DM

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