MALAIKA MAHLATSI | Zuma can never return to Union Buildings, his IEC victory not withstanding

African leaders’ refusal to surrender power undermines future

Former president Jacob Zuma.
Former president Jacob Zuma.

Like many South Africans, I was following the case of Umkhonto weSizwe Party (MK Party)  before the Electoral Court.

On Monday, the court, sitting in Johannesburg, heard the case on whether former president Jacob Zuma is eligible to be nominated to the National Assembly by his party.  

 Just over a week ago, the Electoral Commission of SA (IEC) ruled that section 47 of the constitution precludes Zuma from being a member of parliament on account of his criminal record. Back in 2021, Zuma was convicted of contempt of court and was sentenced to 15 months imprisonment.

Zuma’s arrest became the spark that lit a fire of an unprecedented wave of violence across the country, with hundreds of shops looted, properties vandalised and nearly 400 people killed.

After serving just two months behind bars, Zuma was granted remission of sentence  by President Cyril Ramaphosa. This  was the central argument in the case before the Electoral Court, with lawyers for Umkhonto weSizwe, led by  Adv Dali Mpofu, arguing that the remission  negates the sentence.

Lawyers for the IEC, led by  Adv Thembeka Ngcukaitobi, argued the opposite – that Zuma not serving his full sentence in prison doesn’t negate that he’s a convicted criminal in the eyes of the law – one who was sentenced to 15 months, thus, making him ineligible to stand for election to the National Assembly.

However, yesterday Zuma won the appeal against his disqualification by the IEC to go to parliament.

Whatever the legalities of the case, the politics of it necessitate reflection.

On Monday, Zuma addressed his supporters outside the court, telling them that he would readily return to the Union Buildings if given a chance to do so. Zuma said: “If people were to say 'Go there', no one can stop me. They forget that I did not finish my term. There is something that I need to go and take care of there [at the Union Buildings].”

Zuma knows that this is an impossibility not only because his conviction precludes him from being a member of parliament, but also because section 88 of the constitution is clear that no person may hold office as president for more than two terms. Regardless of Zuma not finishing his term, like Thabo Mbeki before him, he cannot return to the Union Buildings.

But let’s imagine an impossible scenario in which he could return (and we must remember that this impossibility is based on both the law and the fact that there’s no possibility of MK Party winning enough votes to govern SA), what could Zuma possibly have to give SA? The nine years that he led the country were characterised by the erosion of democratic institutions, the entrenchment of corruption and maladministration and constitutional delinquency.

Under Zuma, our country’s foreign policy became the butt of jokes and our policy incoherence in general was numbing. But more than this, the office of the president as an institution became devoid of dignity as his personal issues interfered with the running of the state.

Sure, some good did happen under Zuma, including the introduction of free higher education, the strides made in reducing the infant mortality rate, the strengthening of our ARV rollout which led to millions of HIV-positive individuals being on treatment and the introduction of potentially impactful industrialist policies.

But the damage that happened was also significant and the impact can still be felt today. What then, does this old man, a convicted criminal, believe he can still do as president?

The habit of African presidents refusing to let go of power is debilitating. It’s also an insult to capable young leaders who could make a real difference. We saw how Robert Mugabe’s hold onto power destroyed Zimbabwe and denied generations of Zimbabweans new ideas.

This legacy still haunts our neighbours. In Zuma, we have a man just as dangerous as Mugabe but with lesser brains. And that alone makes him even more dangerous.

Would you like to comment on this article?
Register (it's quick and free) or sign in now.

Speech Bubbles

Please read our Comment Policy before commenting.