Time Zuma's Backers Backed Off
Judgment dealt them a mortal blow
Now that the Supreme Court of Appeal has confirmed the guilt of Schabir Shaik in his corrupt relationship with Jacob Zuma, and done so in such emphatic terms, it is surely time for Zuma's supporters to reassess their support for him as the next president of South Africa.
I find it incredible that they can still insist that the Appeal Court's judgment in the Shaik case does nothing to strengthen the case against Zuma and that to recharge their man in the light of it would amount to a "malicious witch-hunt".
Of course the judgment strengthens the case against him. Even allowing for the fact that any trial of Zuma would have to start from scratch, without assuming any of the findings on the evidence in the Shaik trial, the Appeal Court nevertheless established several legal principles and interpretations of law that significantly strengthen the prosecution case - the most important being the admissibility of an encrypted fax that contains evidence of a bribe that Shaik sought on Zuma's behalf.
So at the very least, it is now clear beyond further doubt that there is a case for Zuma to answer.
Even more important are the political implications of the judgment. Zuma's supporters were dismissive of the trial court verdict, contemptuously deriding Judge Hilary Squires as an "apartheid judge" because he is an ex-Rhodesian who served briefly in Ian Smith's cabinet. That led to the outrageous contention that the trial itself and President Thabo Mbeki's subsequent dismissal of Zuma as deputy president were part of a political conspiracy to prevent their man from succeeding to the national presidency.
Now Judge Squires's findings have been scrutinised and unanimously endorsed in every significant detail by a full bench of five judges of the highest criminal court in the land, who happen to represent the full spectrum of our racial composition.
A total of eight legal minds (Squires sat with two assessors) have found that, over a five-year period, Shaik and some of his companies made 238 separate payments to, and for the benefit of, Zuma.
They found that Shaik sought to solicit a bribe on Zuma's behalf of R500 000 a year from the French arms company, Thomson-CSF, in return for protecting the company from a government investigation into the arms deal and for helping it in future business deals.
Shaik claimed all this was done to help his long-standing friend, who was in financial difficulties, and that the payments were loans which might or might not be repaid.
The eight legal minds all found otherwise, that Shaik took advantage of Zuma's financial problems to lend him money knowing he would never be able to repay it in cash, but only in kind through what Shaik called "political connectivity".
Given their own fatal attraction to Brett Kebble and his supposed millions, one would have hoped that the ANC Youth League, at least, among Zuma's supporters, would show a little more sensitivity to what the appeal judges had to say about the relationship between Shaik and Zuma.
"It is clear," the judges said, "that Shaik was keenly aware of the many business opportunities that the new political era offered and was anxious not to miss them. For his part, Zuma was seen by Shaik and by others in the know as destined for very high political office and possessed of the potent influence appropriate to that situation."
Another passage in the judgment is even more salutary. "The payments to Zuma, a powerful politician, over a period of five years were made calculatingly. Shaik subverted his friendship with Zuma into a relationship of patronage designed to achieve power and wealth. He was brazen and often behaved aggressively and threateningly, using Zuma's name to intimidate people, and particularly potential business partners, into submitting to his will. He sought out people eager to exploit Zuma's power and influence and colluded with them to achieve mutually beneficial results.
"The sustained corrupt relationship over the years had the effect that Shaik could use one of the most powerful politicians in the country when it suited him."
The sustained corrupt relationship with a powerful politician who allowed himself to be used in this way - is that the kind of man we want to lead South Africa into the third decade of our prized and admired democracy? Even if Zuma didn't realise he was being used and abused, do we want someone so gullible, so naive, so vulnerable, to lead so important a country?
These are the questions people such as Zwelinzima Vavi and Blade Nzimande, whom I know to be men of honour and principle, should be asking themselves.
They should be asking themselves, too, whether they want to give the impression to the rest of the country and to the world that they, as individuals and as leaders, don't really care all that much about the corrosive consequences of such a sustained corrupt relationship.
Let them take note of what the appeal judges had to say about corruption. "The seriousness of the offence of corruption cannot be over-emphasised. It offends against the rule of law and the principles of good governance. It lowers the moral tone of a nation and negatively affects development and the promotion of human rights. As a country, we have travelled a long and tortuous road to democracy. Corruption threatens our constitutional order. We must make every effort to ensure that corruption with its putrefying effect is halted."
Vavi and Nzimande have travelled that long and tortuous road with singular honour. They cannot possibly want to harm the democracy it has attained, but they must recognise that continuing to campaign for a politically-tainted man to lead the country will do just that. It will also split, not only the tripartite alliance, but their own organisations, Cosatu and the SACP, as well.
One can understand their loyalty to Zuma. He is a warm and charming, if fallible, man. But to continue to champion him for the presidency is not in his best interests either. It will force him to challenge the prosecuting authorities to charge him and so run the increasingly high risk of ending up in prison.
There is an alternative. There is a window of opportunity before Zuma is charged again, which will probably not happen until the Court of Appeals hands down its judgment on two search and seizure cases around March next year, to seek a negotiated compromise.
This could take the form of a plea bargain, or some other legally acceptable process that would not set a constitutionally-damaging precedent, that would avert both the prospect of prison and of an inappropriate and damaging campaign for the presidency.
Now is the time for Zuma and his supporters to consider that and to start turning their minds to an alternative candidate to give their backing, preferably someone capable of reuniting a seriously divided country and giving it back the image of probity it deserves. The ANC is not short of talented leaders who could do that.
Sparks is a veteran journalist and political commentator.
With acknowledgement to Allister Sparks and Cape Times.