Anti-apartheid veteran Zuma casts long shadow over South Africa

·4-min read
FILE PHOTO: Former South African President Jacob Zuma stands in the dock after recess in his corruption trial in Pietermaritzburg

By Alexander Winning

JOHANNESBURG (Reuters) - When Jacob Zuma finally caved to pressure to quit as South African president in 2018, he ranted to the state broadcaster for an hour about the ill treatment he had received at the hands of the party he had served since his teenage years.

Zuma, besieged by sleaze and graft scandals throughout his years in power from 2009 to 2018, said it was "unfair" the African National Congress (ANC) had told him to resign, mainly because his comrades had not followed proper party procedure.

To South Africans who suffered economic stagnation and national embarrassment under Zuma, it was yet more evidence of a leader unable to look beyond the byzantine inner workings of Africa's oldest liberation movement to consider the greater good of Nelson Mandela's "Rainbow Nation".

On Tuesday, South Africa's constitutional court sentenced Zuma to 15 months in jail for contempt of court after he failed to appear at a corruption inquiry earlier this year.

The inquiry is examining allegations of high-level graft during Zuma's presidency. Zuma denies wrongdoing and has so far not cooperated, but his legal options appear to have run out.

Zuma is being tried on separate corruption charges relating to a $2 billion arms deal with French defence firm Thales in 1999, when he was deputy president.

The charges were reinstated in March 2018, a month after the ANC kicked him out of office after a presidency marked by graft allegations and sovereign credit rating downgrades.

The former leader rejects all allegations as a politically motivated witch-hunt. But the case is a rare example of an African judicial system seeking to prosecute a former leader for wrongdoing.

CONTROVERSIAL LEADER

Zuma, an anti-apartheid veteran and Zulu traditionalist, was South Africa's most controversial leader since the end of white minority rule in 1994.

It was Zuma's mastery of the ANC's internal dynamics that enabled him to survive for so long, but his political influence had been on the wane since then-Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa replaced him as ruling party leader in December 2017.

"It's us who got South Africa into this mess by electing Zuma to be president," Jackson Mthembu, former ANC chief whip, once said. "We should have looked closely into the man. With hindsight we made a terrible error of judgment."

Waning electoral support for the ANC and public anger at near-daily corruption revelations encouraged the ANC to pressure Zuma into resigning well before his second term was due to end in mid-2019.

Zuma, whose Zulu middle name Gedleyihlekisa means "the one who smiles as he hurts you", has cast a long shadow over South African politics for the past decade.

He was booed in front of foreign dignitaries at liberation hero Nelson Mandela's memorial service in 2013, lampooned in the media and criticised for overseeing years of economic decline.

But the folksy charm of Zuma, a teetotaller, and his modest upbringing ensured that he always retained a loyal following, especially in rural areas.

'GREAT SURVIVOR'

During the apartheid era, Zuma was jailed for 10 years with Mandela on Robben Island. Later he went into exile, before returning as white rule came to an end.

Commentators had written off Zuma's political career on several occasions, but he proved them wrong time after time, earning himself the nickname of the "great survivor".

Ronnie Kasrils, a former intelligence minister and anti-apartheid veteran who spent years in the ANC underground, said Zuma was not the "simple man" he portrayed himself to be.

"Astute and engaging from earlier days, along the way Zuma has become driven by a lust for wealth and power," Kasrils wrote in "A Simple Man", his biography of Zuma.

Using skills honed as the ANC's intelligence chief during apartheid, Zuma silenced dissenting voices by promoting little-known officials who did his bidding to powerful positions in the security and intelligence portfolios.

Zuma also ensured the top leadership of the ANC was always controlled by loyalists who could, if needed, thwart attempts to unseat him.

"The politics of patronage sustained Zuma," said Bantu Holomisa, an opposition leader and former ANC member. "All those who would have questioned him were rewarded with cabinet posts and ambassadorships abroad. Those who were deemed undesirable were ferreted out of the ANC."

But Tuesday's ruling appears to have left Zuma without legal recourse.

"He has depleted all his (legal) options because there is no higher court to appeal to. The constitutional court is normally the last stop," Amanda Gouws, a professor of political science at the University of Stellenbosch, said.

"They have finally said 'enough is enough'."

(Additional reporting by Wendell Roelf; Editing by Nick Macfie)

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