Zuma Saga and the Rule of Law: Justice Must Be Seen to Be Trusted

Zuma Saga and the Rule of Law: Justice Must Be Seen to Be Trusted

Last week's meeting of the African National Congress executive committee, including the commitment by President Thabo Mbeki and ANC Deputy President Jacob Zuma to work together, may provide a way forward for the tripartite alliance in managing internal tensions which have reached boiling point following the judgment in the Schabir Shaik trial.

But it is not clear what impact it will have in putting to rest questions about abuses of the principle of separation of powers, in terms of which the justice system is supposed to operate independently of political interference, or perceptions of political partisanship on the part of criminal justice officials, which have been raised by the feud within the alliance.

At the heart of the problem appear to be suspicions, apparently held by some alliance members, that Jacob Zuma is the target of a political conspiracy. This extends to a view that this is the primary reason why he is currently facing charges of corruption.

These suspicions appear to be deeply held by many of those who have articulated them. But it has been unclear to what degree those who hold these suspicions believe that the criminal justice system is being directly manipulated, though this has been implied by many of the statements which have been made.

One way of reading the ANC NEC response is as confirmation that there is in fact no strongly held belief of misuse of the criminal justice system. Surely if there was a sincere belief on the part of the tripartite alliance 'left' that the National Prosecuting Authority, and even the judiciary, were being manipulated by Thabo Mbeki and his allies, these concerns would be of such a serious nature that there would be an obvious need for a commission of inquiry, or some other mechanism, to be established to expose and deal with this problem.

Instead the NEC merely indicated that 'interactions should continue within the Alliance, to clarify the ANC's position' on the matters before them 'including the proposed Commission on the issue of a "political conspiracy"' while alliance members appear to have endorsed the framework put forward for resolving the crisis.

But elements of ambiguity remain for outsiders to the alliance who have no sense of how much of the full drama is being played out in public. Perhaps both sides have merely prioritised the interests of the ANC and tripartite alliance and its need to hold onto political power in South Africa, while strong suspicions about the manipulation of the criminal justice system remain.

The statement issued by Mbeki and Zuma recognises that the political battle in the alliance has been destructive for attitudes to the criminal justice system and respect for the rule of law.

Mbeki and Zuma emphasised that 'It is in the profound interests of revolutionary democrats, the motive forces of the revolution and the Left in general to respect the rule of law. This includes respect for institutions of the state mandated to carry out law enforcement and judicial functions. The ANC and its allies should mobilise society to respect this principle'.

The statement that 'We should prevent the abuse of state institutions for … personal agendas' may also be read as a muted acknowledgement of the concerns of some role players that the principle of separation of powers was being abused.

However the idea that the criminal justice system is being used for the purpose of settling political scores, has already been established in the minds of many. Whether or not there are actually firmly rooted beliefs within the alliance that this is true, these ideas have been given legitimacy by being repeated so frequently.

On a more reassuring level though, despite the political battle, and enormous political pressure which has been brought to bear, the charges against Zuma still stand. This provides reason for confidence that principles of equality before the law, in terms of which transgressors may be brought to book whatever rank they hold in our society, are still of some force.

Similarly last week's judgment against the Scorpions should be welcomed at the very least because it demonstrates the vigour and independence of the courts, rather than suggesting that they are simply accomplices in some grand conspiracy.

But the continuing prosecution of Jacob Zuma is likely to result in political temperatures remaining at a high level.

In the months ahead allegations of the criminal justice system being misused may continue to be aired in the political arena, despite the apparent encouragement, provided in the NEC statement, that alliance members should refrain from making such accusations.

Unless these issues can be put to rest, the crisis within the tripartite alliance may profoundly undermine the process of building respect for the rule of law and the criminal justice system, so important to the process of nation building taking place in South Africa.

David Bruce is a Senior Researcher in the Criminal Justice Programme at the Centre for the Study of Violence and Reconciliation.

Originally published in Business Day, 20 September 2005.

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CSVR is a multi-disciplinary institute that seeks to understand and prevent violence, heal its effects and build sustainable peace at the community, national and regional levels.

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