Zuma is playing a dangerous game

For President Jacob Zuma and his supporters, victory at the ANC’s Polokwane conference was crucial to controlling those levers of state power that would enable the quashing of charges of fraud and corruption against him. The dropping of charges, in turn, was crucial to the durability of both his term in office and a retirement outside jail.

So political pre-eminence mattered not just because it secured the presidency, but also because it secured the president’s person. Or it would, in a less democratically poised constitutional system.

This week we saw as clearly as we have at any point in the decade since we learnt of the Scorpions’ investigation into his activities how the political, legal and underground aspects of Zuma’s battle for personal security seek to tilt the ­balance of that system away from accountability and towards his survival.

This is most clearly evident in the ongoing battle over the review powers of the courts, which remain stubbornly resistant to the kind of leverage that politicians are able to exert over law enforcement agencies, spies and even prosecutors.

Zuma and Justice Minister Jeff Radebe have spent the past month repairing the damage done by Zuma’s suggestion that the powers of the Constitutional Court need to be reconsidered.

The fragile sense of calm they had restored, however, was broken the minute the Supreme Court of Appeal found that the Democratic Alliance has legal standing to get the decision to drop charges against Zuma reviewed.

“It is clear that democracy can be undermined by simply approaching courts to reverse any decision arrived at by a qualified organ of state,” the ANC said in a press statement.

Of course, pressure on the courts was a feature of Zuma’s earlier efforts to get charges dropped and it was in that context that we learnt from Gwede Mantashe that judges were “counter-revolutionaries”.

Never mind all the rhetoric about the need for a more progressive jurisprudence and the perceived obstacles to change laid down by the property rights clause: on the evidence of 2007 and of this week, the party’s position on the judiciary is just as powerfully motivated by Zuma’s desire to stay out of court as it is by larger considerations.

The other crucial battleground in the period before he moved into the Union Buildings was the secret world. The hoax emails scandal, surveillance by the then National Intelligence Agency of Thabo Mbeki’s supporters, the Browse Mole report and, ultimately, the leaking of phone taps that led to the dropping of charges were the work of spy agencies more loyal to their political principals than to the Constitution.

The disciplining of Julius Malema has shored up Zuma’s political position, but he appears to be taking no chances with those dangerous spooks and, as we report this week, is building a ring of secret protection around himself that aims to limit the risks that are not so amenable to party management.

Zuma’s control of the ANC is no doubt the outcome of legitimate politicking, but the twin strategies of manipulating the secret state and delegitimising the courts are deepening the damage to democratic institutions done by both sides on the road to Polokwane. We do not want to travel that route again.

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