Shaik Trial Puts South Africa Itself in the Dock
Deputy President Jacob Zuma and the country’s tolerance for wrongdoing will be under scrutiny in the High Court next week, writes Mondli Makhanya
‘This trial will set the standard for public morality: The way those in the public eye including those in business and civil society go about playing their roles’
Every nation has its defining moments the times in its life when history takes a certain direction and the character of the society takes shape. Those moments tell a people just what kind of society they are or want to be. South Africa is just about to experience one of its defining moments when in just over a week Durban businessman Schabir Shaik walks into a courtroom to face fraud and corruption charges.
Absent from the courtroom will be Shaik’s virtual co-accused: Deputy President Jacob Zuma. Zuma will, however, be ubiquitous even in his absence. He is there on almost every page of the charge sheet, which details the servant-master relationship he allegedly had with Shaik.
The charge sheet states bluntly that there was “a general corrupt relationship between Zuma and Accused 1 [Schaik] and corporate accused, whereby Accused 1 and/or the other corporate accused paid Zuma to further their private business interests at the cost of funding Zuma’s excessive expenditure”.
In plain English, the National Prosecuting Authority wants to prove that South Africa’s Deputy President is a corrupt man.
That, in essence, is going to be the plot of the drama that will unfold in the Durban High Court over the next few months.
The question of whether Zuma was corrupted by Shaik will be answered in testimony by more than 100 witnesses and in hundreds of documents that will be put before the court.
Zuma, Shaik and others in the ANC have stated that there was a darker, ulterior motive behind the investigation by the Scorpions.
If that is the case, and the court is provided with evidence of it, that would mean the country’s investigative agencies are vulnerable to manipulation by the powerful. The consequence should be that the manipulators are unmasked and dealt with by the law.
This country is new to the game of democratic politics and cannot afford to conduct its business in the dark. It also cannot have the integrity of its public institutions clouded by such grave accusations.
Hopefully this case will help us unmask the manipulators if they exist or put paid to the accusations.
The case will also answer many questions that millions absent from the courtroom will be asking.
The South African public will be asking questions that go way beyond the legalese of the prosecution and the defence.
There will be questions about the appropriate relationship between politician and businessman. We will be examining the very concept of corruption and its effects on the fabric of society.
Also under scrutiny will be the relationship between the ruling party and the institutions over which the state presides. The ANC has so far steadfastly defended its Deputy President and launched vicious assaults on the state organs investigating him.
But the most important question will be our own tolerance of wrongdoing by powerful figures and whether we were prepared to allow political loyalties to blind us. Zuma has been hailed as a hero and as a victim of reactionary forces by many across the nation, while those investigating him have been accused of everything just short of treason against the revolution.
Nevertheless, South Africa has so far acquitted itself well in this saga. If some of the parties at the receiving end of the investigation had their way, the entire process would have been shut down more than a year ago.
The battle over whether the investigation should ever have been conducted has claimed many victims across the spectrum, and on both sides of the divide. The most high-profile victim is undoubtedly former National Director of Public Prosecutions Bulelani Ngcuka, who despite his own claims to the contrary could no longer stand being in the front line of this battle.
But the probe has survived whispering campaigns, the intimidation of investigators and outright attempts to apply political pressure. Now the trial will run its course and if the court acquits Shaik, it will also affirm the integrity of the man whose lifestyle Shaik has allegedly bankrolled over a period of seven years. If he is convicted, there will be telling lessons that will inform the way we conduct our business and politics in South Africa.
This trial will set the standard for public morality: the way those in the public eye including those in business and civil society go about playing their roles.
At the risk of being accused of prejudging the Shaik case, it is clear from the charge sheet that an inappropriate relationship existed between Shaik and Zuma. Whether it was a corrupt relationship is a matter for learned judges not lowly newspapermen to decide.
When a businessman who is benefiting handsomely from government projects clothes the country’s second-most powerful politician, pays his bills (including party subscriptions), doles out allowances to his children and settles his debts, the alarm bells must ring.
And when the country’s second-most powerful politician lends his good name in support of one particular individual in business deals, and even degrades himself by acting as a mascot for this individual, we have to be worried.
When, worse still, the politician sees no reason why he should explain to his people why he behaved in this manner, his judgment must be questioned.
Zuma’s supporters argue that the Deputy President’s ties to the Shaik family go back to the dangerous days of the liberation struggle when the clan gave him succour. Such ties, we are supposed to accept, are more sacred than commitment to the people and the Constitution.
Zuma’s supporters argue further that since Shaik was Zuma’s “financial adviser”, no one should take issue with the fact that funds from Shaik’s companies were used to settle his debts.
And they say we should just take his word for it that the numerous “loans” he received from business people and miscellaneous sources were legitimate.
If we are to develop weapons to fight the poisonous snake that is corruption, this trial more than any other exercise will teach us how.
The trial will provide a crucial test for the ANC, whose next president is most likely to be Zuma.
When the party introduced the notion of the New Person a few years ago, it told us that it wanted its members to be selfless individuals who would eschew wrongdoing and dedicate themselves to serving the nation in whatever area of life they were in.
The ANC must determine whether its probable next president is the prototype of this New Person; whether the standard for the behaviour of ANC members in public office must mirror the details we will hear coming out of the Durban High Court.
The party will also have to ascertain whether that is the standard that South Africa wants to set for the African continent, which is looking to us for leadership on good governance.
If the ANC and South African society are comfortable with the details of the Zuma-Shaik relationship, then we all have no business pretending that we are any more moral than the lot who wield power in Washington or Luanda.
If we do find it a problem, then we will be on our way to becoming the beacon that we keep telling the world we are.
And then we should use those lessons to build a society in which public officials will find it impossible to behave as our Deputy President has done, or for an ambitious businessman to treat a senior politician in so degrading a manner.
With ackowledgements to Mondli Makhany and the Sunday Times.