Zuma era shows that lawyers work when politics don't

President Jacob Zuma.
President Jacob Zuma.
Image: REUTERS/Rogan Ward

The Jacob Zuma years must represent a golden era for South African lawyers - or at least for some of the legal eagles.

The Zuma administration has been the subject of a lot of litigation, and often about issues pertaining to the president's conduct. This means millions of taxpayers' rands that could have been used for the poor have been wasted on lawsuits.

The judgment last week, of the full bench of the north Gauteng high court, must rank as one of the most damning rulings on Zuma's personal integrity: the court held that the president was too conflicted to appoint our chief prosecutor and transferred that responsibility to Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa.

Expect peddlers of political conspiracies to cast aspersions on the ruling or accuse the courts of "judicial overreach". The leaders of uMkhonto weSizwe Military Veterans Association have already labelled it a "legal coup", on the eve of the ANC's elective national conference where Ramaphosa is vying for the party's presidency.

There is no denying that Zuma's legal woes have put him in a position where he is forced to pay lip service to his pledge to uphold the constitution. It remains to be seen though, whether the superior courts will uphold the remedy the learned judges have handed down to cure Zuma's ethical quandary,

You can't expect him to admit that he is conflicted or to see the need to step aside. His quest for self-preservation trumps everything and his actions are to perpetually defer his day in court.

Of course, the court's ruling also speaks to the failure of the legislature to hold the president answerable. If the legislature were properly deploying the instruments at it disposal - including the threat of a motion of no confidence - Zuma's abuse of political office would be history.

The governing party has noble-sounding ideas about the need for public office-bearers to behave with integrity, but it does not apply them consistently. For example, its 2007 Polokwane conference resolutions on ethics and integrity say ANC members and leaders "should promote ethical values and lead by example. ANC members and leaders in particular must avoid conflict of interest and perceived conflicts of interest".

The problem is that they have never applied to Zuma's many political scandals. The party's much-vaunted integrity commission bares its fangs from time to time, but has neither the appetite nor the power to bite.

As the saying goes, law begins when politics fails. So the courts end up shouldering the burden of having to keep the head of the executive accountable.

They probably wouldn't be doing this if our political system wasn't dysfunctional.

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