JOHANNESBURG, South Africa – For nearly three years, South African investigators have unearthed a network of corruption surrounding former President Jacob Zuma in a public inquiry that captivated the country.
There were bribes paid for premium whiskey, luxury cars, and a Louis Vuitton purse full of cash. Senior officials distributed lucrative contracts with the government in exchange for monthly donations. This era of corruption has drained tens of billions of dollars from state coffers and has become one of the most infamous chapters in South Africa’s post-apartheid history.
Now, the country’s highest court will determine whether Zuma can be held responsible for contempt of court and an era of inconsequential corruption, at a hearing that represents one of the biggest tests for South Africa’s democratic institutions in recent years.
“This is an absolutely critical moment: the principle that all people will be equal before the law is challenged and the constitutional system itself is challenged,” said William Gumede, president of the Democracy Works Foundation, a South African nonprofit group. . “Essentially, the ex-president is saying that he is above the law of the country, he is above the Constitution, he is untouchable.”
The hearing, which takes place at the Constitutional Court on Thursday, comes a month after Zuma challenged a court order to appear with corruption investigators, a move that challenged the legitimacy of South Africa’s legal system and prompted the chief investigator to seek a two-year prison sentence for Mr. Zuma for contempt of court.
It is unlikely that the Constitutional Court will impose such a harsh sentence when the verdict is announced in the coming weeks. Doing so could trigger mass protests by Zuma supporters and destabilize the country as it recovers from the worst coronavirus outbreak on the continent, an economy affected by the pandemic and record unemployment.
However, the hearing is seen as an important moment for South Africa, which has been plagued by corruption for the past decade, with few officials accountable.
Speaking at the virtual hearing on Thursday morning, a lawyer from the corruption investigation framed Zuma’s refusal to testify and the recent attacks depreciating the upper court as a fundamental threat to the country’s democracy.
“There is a real risk, a threat, to the authority of the judiciary as a whole,” said the lawyer, Tembeka Ngcukaitobi. “Your conduct should be seen as it is: we are dealing with a cynical maneuver to avoid accountability.”
Zuma and his legal team did not attend the online hearing to answer charges of contempt – a move that analysts say is totally unprecedented in such a high-profile case.
The case also highlighted the challenges faced by the African National Congress, Nelson Mandela’s party that has governed the country since the end of apartheid in 1994. During Zuma’s nine-year term, the party was consumed by corruption scandals that tarnished his image and fueled public outrage at maladministration
After Zuma was ousted from the presidency in 2018, the ANC became increasingly polarized between supporters of the former president and supporters of his successor, Cyril Ramaphosa, who promised to crack down on corruption and restore public confidence.
Fierce resistance to Ramaphosa’s efforts from within the ANC cast serious doubts about his ability to deliver on that promise.
But analysts say the hearing in the upper court on Thursday could be the beginning of an inflection point. Not only does Zuma face a possible prison sentence with the result, but he will also be tried in May on charges of having received a bribe from arms dealers in the 1990s.
“For 15 years or more, Jacob Zuma has been using the strength of the South African judicial system to postpone his day in court,” appealing lawsuits against him, said Richard Calland, a professor of constitutional law at the University of Cape Town. “But he is now running out of a legal clue. This is the moment when he finally meets his Waterloo legally. “
Mr. Zuma denied all charges in both cases. In recent months, he has also accused the leader of the corruption investigation, Deputy Chief Justice Raymond Zondo, of maintaining personal vengeance against him and attacked the investigation itself.
Established in 2018, the investigation is known as the State Capture Commission, a term that has become a buzzword in South Africa and refers to corruption at such a high level that private groups have effectively acquired the power to divert resources from the state. into your own hands.
The commission interviewed more than 250 witnesses at televised hearings that have become a kind of soap opera about corruption rooted in the country. It is expected to end in June and deliver a report to the South African authorities that may include suggestions for process.
Together, the testimonies paint a blunt picture of post-apartheid South Africa, where relations between former freedom fighters in business and government have turned into criminal enterprises and elites have manipulated efforts to transfer the economic power of the white minority of the country. country for black South Africans. their own pockets.
At least 40 witnesses directly implicated Zuma in arrangements to plunder tens of millions of dollars from state-owned companies. In total, about $ 33 billion was diverted from state coffers during his tenure, which ended in 2018 amid public outrage over corruption and bitter internal struggles within the governing party.
For months, many South Africans anticipated a climactic moment when the former president would appear on the panel and investigators could demand a response to the nearly three years of evidence against him.
But this moment of reckoning seems unlikely to come. At the contempt hearing on Thursday, the commission’s lawyer, Mr. Ngcukaitobi, admitted that investigators had given up hope that Zuma would one day testify.
“It is clear that the situation has worsened beyond what the commission could have predicted,” he told the nine judges, who appeared on Zoom in dark green robes with pictures of the big red brick wall of the court and a big South African flag as a background.
“The public was deprived,” said Ngcukaitobi, “of an opportunity to hear Mr. Zuma, to hear his version, to get an explanation.”