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06 July 2021 | Story Prof Sethulego Matebesi | Photo Sonia Small (Kaleidoscope Stuidos)
Prof Sethulego Matebesi is an Associate Professor at the Department of Sociology at the University of the Free State.

Opinion article by Prof Sethulego Matebesi, Associate Professor at the Department of Sociology, University of the Free State

More than two centuries ago, Patrick Henry of the Boston Tea Party noted, “Is life so dear or peace so sweet as to be purchased at the price of chains and slavery? … give me liberty or give me death.”


This statement resonates with the current political theatre set up in Nkandla near the homestead of former President Jacob Zuma. In attendance are many Zuma loyalists of all walks of life. For these Zuma loyalists, their presence at Nkandla symbolises their unparalleled love for their leader, whom they regard as a champion of the poor and the needy. But at the same time, I reckon they want to convey a bold message of their understanding of an expansive idea of what democracy and justice entail.

Notwithstanding this, democracy delivered Donald Trump to America and Zuma to South Africa. But, as intriguing as the contributions of many South African commentators who have compared the two former presidents, one thing is clear: they had all the power to the right things but failed.

The recent sentencing of Zuma by the Constitutional Court for contempt in defying its order to appear before the Judicial Commission of Inquiry into Allegations of State Capture, has created widespread anxiety. Some described this as a resounding affirmation of the independence of the judiciary and the rule of law. Along with this affirmation, so it is believed, is the possibility of solidifying political renewal. For the ardent Zuma supporters, however, the judgement represents a dangerous moment and a threat to the values of South African democracy. 

Ascendance to the political stage 

Undoubtedly, the sentencing of Zuma resurrects an ancient metaphor that life is like a never-ending play in which people are actors. Accordingly, democracy thrust Mr Zuma as the lead actor onto the stage of politics in South Africa in 2009. Of course, there had been several doubts about Zuma’s credibility, long before his ascendance to political power. But we live in a liberal era in which an extensive political background hardly matters anymore. However, history would later suggest that we have erred.

Since becoming President of South Africa, many euphemisms have been used to describe the leadership of Zuma. One of the most scathing euphemisms came from President Cyril Ramaphosa and Finance Minister Tito Mboweni’s reference to the Jacob Zuma presidency as nine wasted years. Similarly, taking a look at history, one wonders who of the twelve former presidents of the ANC shaped Zuma’s notions of power and political identity. Could it be that he embodies the spirit of the founders of the ANC, such as, for example, Josiah Gumede, John Dube, Oliver Tambo, or Sol Plaatje?
Some co-actors in the Nkandla play may mumble that Zuma’s sin is that he is a courageous leader who was not afraid to take risks in facing and dealing with the country’s challenges. For them, Zuma has been able – thus far – to successfully challenge the hegemony of the judiciary and the problems arising from rent-seeking legacies and patronage within the apartheid system that is now blamed on their leader. Such praise comes despite some viewing it as a political tenure that eschewed good governance and financial prudence principles.

A theatre script that went horribly wrong

A conclusion about the play’s primary character is that he has continued – from a supporter’s perspective – to depict the vulgarity of the judiciary in threatening democracy in the country. A root problem with the primary character is the intensity of commitment observed each time he displays his visceral hatred for the judiciary yet performs erratically and confusing when he explains why he did not use the opportunity to state his case. Instead, using his trademark of indiscernible pride, Zuma and his supporters are drawing hysterical comparisons between his sentencing and how the apartheid government was pardoned.

In essence, none of this is surprising. The convergence at Nkandla is symptomatic of an aggrieved group seeking to fight back and exorcising themselves of the destructive spirit of the ANC’s Nasrec elections in 2017. These are acts of delusion – the inevitable result of a political theatre script gone horribly wrong. 

The acid test for the health and vitality of democratic institutions

There have been deliberate attempts by the ruling elite in Africa to narrow the judiciary’s scope since the advent of the third wave of democratisation on the continent. As a result, the euphoria that sees South Africa as a beacon of entrenched constitutionalism in the Southern African region, is waning at an alarming rate. Even more disturbing is the disregard for the rule of law by the political elite, which can manifest itself at different societal levels.

One of the pathways to the current crisis has been the profoundly divisive factional battles of the ANC. The factional is the longer-term context in which the judiciary must affirm its centrality in providing appropriate enforcement mechanisms for constitutionalism. However, any form of back-door concessions for the political elite will be misguided and reckless. South Africans should never again proceed down the road of ideological politicking at the expense of constitutional supremacy. Such a path dissipates the rights of the people.

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