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Editorial: Some freedom fighters are no longer honourable

Friends, readers, countrymen, lend us your ears; we are here to lament Jacob Zuma, not to praise him.

The president, busy as he is with running the country efficiently, was late for the unveiling of a monument in his honour this week. Threats from opposition parties to disrupt the event amounted to nothing more than the pious protestations of the politically vacuous. And the president — when he eventually arrived — was flanked by North West Premier Supra Mahumapelo before recounting his arrest at that very spot by apartheid police in 1963.

He would go on to be detained under the 90-day detention law in solitary confinement in Pretoria, where he was interrogated and beaten, even though the police already had enough evidence to secure a conviction. At the age of 21, Zuma was convicted and sentenced to 10 years in prison for conspiring to overthrow the government.

There is no doubt that South Africa owes Zuma a debt for his personal sacrifice in the struggle to free South Africa from a corrupt, murderous regime.

Zuma’s contributions to the freedoms we enjoy today did not end in his Robben Island prison cell. He spent years in exile, further contributing (not without incident) to the fight for a free South Africa.

In a rather quiet, unassuming way, Zuma has been a giant of South African history.

And there are many like him — many whose lives were torn asunder while they stood up for their right to be treated as human beings, treated as equal to those who assumed superiority over them. Many of these people will never have their names known, they will never have the site of their arrest memorialised. But we hope that in the act of remembering a few, we remember too the many whose names we will never know.

Zuma was a freedom fighter. And there is a unique honour in fighting for freedom. We remember the sacrifice in the fight for freedom, the struggle for dignity against an oppressive regime. And Zuma, the freedom fighter, should be honoured by history.

His becoming president, however, will be counted among history’s follies.

His ascent to power has been dogged by a litany of allegations of corruption and scandal. And each allegation, each scandal, appears to have been arranged with acute attention to preserving his reputation for acting with impunity.

In today’s edition of the Mail & Guardian we publish the details of an interview between the Scorpions and Zuma’s former spokesperson, Mac Maharaj, himself a giant of history. The details of that interview have been quietly humming in the draft folders of the amaBhungane team for some six years now.

And a lot has happened in these intervening six years (not least at the M&G).

Maharaj has retired, and is ailing.

Jacob Zuma is weaker, and yet as strong as ever.

But reading that Maharaj story against the backdrop of the current political spectacle is most damning of our president’s legacy.

The story that we were prevented from publishing in 2011 revealed that Maharaj lied during what is known as a section 28 inquiry. He was questioned by the Scorpions in the course of an investigation into whether he had received bribes from Schabir Shaik — the same Shaik who was convicted for, among other things, making corrupt payments to Zuma.

Shaik has, of course, made a miraculous recovery from a terminal illness and these days prefers to spend his days golfing. He has long been succeeded by the Gupta family in their largesse to the president and his family, and their reach into lucrative state contracts.

The state, however, was not captured overnight. It was Shaik and his crimes that paved the way for the Guptas.

Zuma’s presidency has normalised the practice of his friends using their proximity to him to further their own ends.

Ultimately the Supreme Court of Appeal (SCA) found that it was not just permissible but necessary for us to publish these details.

And just as we marked the 40th anniversary of Black Wednesday this week — when the evil of the apartheid regime was unleashed on the press — it is fitting that the SCA, in upholding our right to publish details of Maharaj’s interview with the Scorpions, also delivered a ringing endorsement of transparency and media freedom.

The judgment proved to be a stern defence of the role of independent media as the watchdog of democracy.

“The public needs to be assured that there is no impropriety in public life and that, if there is, then it should be exposed,” said Justice Nathan Ponnan. “In that sense, the media plays a vital watchdog role. One of the aspirational goals of the media is to make governmental conduct in all of its many facets transparent.”

While the ANC scurries to find its next president, this is an opportune moment to note that Zuma should never have been president.

The evil that men do does indeed live long, long after them. 

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