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South Africa in flames


Spontaneous outbreak or insurrection?

South Africa | DAVID EVERATT | South Africans spent most of mid-July glued to their news outlets, from established media outlets to TikTok, from streaming news to old-fashioned printed words, to see just one thing: would Jacob Zuma blink? Would the country finally get some taste of revenge for the state capture, looting, destruction of institutions and threats to the country’s democracy their former president had enabled and championed? Would the rule of law win?

Zuma blinked, with a few minutes to spare, and handed himself over to police. An hour or so later he was booked into a rather comfy looking “state of the art correctional facility” in Estcourt (which had taken 17 years to refurbish).

The rule of law won. The institutions that had been so assiduously hollowed out under the nine years of his presidency had flexed their new-found muscle. The Constitutional Court had long held firm, the police were rather more wobbly, but despite much assegai-rattling by family members and the Zuma Foundation, into prison he went. No ANC leader expressed joy, only sorrow that the man had fallen so low; for people not in such elevated positions, it was a rare moment of jubilation in the midst of a global pandemic that has us locked down, again.

Protests that had been low key since he was arrested on Wednesday night exploded into an an orgy of looting, marching, xenophobic attacks, arson, truck-burning, stabbing and shooting, and blockading of roads and freeways (among others) by Sunday. It seemed – and Zuma’s allies and (adult) children were quick to preach the word – that he was so popular and such an object of sympathy that a spontaneous outbreak of bloody violence and theft was unavoidable, and a dark portent if Zuma was not immediately released. Prescience seemed to have replaced profligacy.

The stakes were (and remain) exceptionally high. Thanks in part to the commission of inquiry into state capture and corruption Zuma established and later refused to attend, Zuma is now known to have allowed the Gupta family, using organised crime money-laundering vehicles, to bankrupt the state. As has been noted, fish rot from the head. From the time that he was fired by former president Thabo Mbeki (in 2005) to date, Zuma has deployed his infamous Stalingrad legal strategy. In effect, he has been fighting every single item in court while adopting the victim stance of a man more sinned against than sinning.

Sadly, Zuma is not a Shakespearian hero, but a man of decidedly clay feet. For nine years as president, he outmanoeuvred pretty much all and sundry – he reshuffled cabinets to destabilise opponents; he forced the Whip and faced down multiple votes of no confidence; he allowed R50 billion to be stolen by his friends, the Gupta family – all now safely in Dubai – and ran state and party as both cash cow and defensive wall.

He met his match in Cyril Matamela Ramaphosa, who succeeded him as ANC and national president. Ramaphosa has moved with the cold, calculating methodology that proves him to be the real chess master (Zuma has a passion for the game). Ramaphosa has outmanoeuvred Zuma and many of his allies in the ANC (such as secretary general Ace Magashule). He has done this by trying to resuscitate the organs of state, investigation and prosecution that had been severely damaged by his predecessor.

The rule of law – which took a pummelling over the last decade – seems to be out of rehab. Zuma may only be in prison for a contempt charge – but the notion that the first ANC leader in orange overall would be Zuma was not a fantasy that played out as realistic in most imaginations.

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