For a couple of hours on Monday, advocate Muzi Sikhakhane SC transported South Africa back more than a decade to the dirty, brutal war for control of the governing party that was fought between former president Thabo Mbeki and his successor, Jacob Zuma.
Sikhakhane’s address to the high court in Pietermaritzburg during Zuma’s application for a permanent stay of prosecution, heard by a full Bench, was a stark reminder of the manipulation of the National Prosecuting Authority (NPA) by Mbeki’s allies in a failed bid to keep Zuma out of the presidency of the party and the country.
Drawing heavily on the so-called spy tapes — recordings of conversations between politicians and prosecutors allegedly conspiring against Zuma — in the application, Sikhakhane told the court his client was “a victim of mob justice” by Mbeki’s lieutenants.
The “spy tapes” were the basis for the April 2009 decision by the national director of public prosecutions, Mokotedi Mpshe, to withdraw charges against Zuma. But, the high court in Pretoria subsequently set aside the decision on the grounds that it was “irrational”.
Sikhakhane said the case was an “intersection of law and politics”, arguing that the decision to charge Zuma and his former financial adviser Schabir Shaik separately was aimed at nailing the “big fish”.
“This was a test run for the NPA and [NPA head Bulelani] Ngcuka to test that, if at a later stage they decided to charge the big fish, Zuma, they would know whether they had a case or not,” he said.
The recordings, he said, showed the level of disdain that former Scorpions boss Leonard McCarthy held for Zuma — who he described as a “fool” — as well as the extent of the manipulation of the decision to charge Zuma on the eve of the ANC’s Polokwane elective conference.
That decision, as well as its timing and its implementation, were all tainted, the result of a conspiracy against Zuma by the presidency, the NPA and members of the Cabinet, said Sikhakhane.
“To any objective and truly unbiased mind, the prejudice and injustice visited on Zuma is self-evident,” he said.
The public gallery was at times only half full, a sharp contrast with his corruption trial in 2008, when ANC luminaries queued up to show their support for the then president-to-be.
Outside the court, the proceedings were a reminder of Zuma’s failure to win his second battle for the ANC presidency — the one he lost by proxy against Cyril Ramaphosa at the party’s elective conference at Nasrec in December 2017.
Zuma did his best to rally the faithful and bring back the heady days of 2006, when he turned the charges against him into a campaign for the presidency. But this time he failed, having neither the numbers in front of him nor the backing on the podium to pull it off.
The “coalition of the wounded” that backed Zuma at court — and in his bid for the presidency at Polokwane in 2007 — was gone, with only a handful of loyalists left to try to whip up the crowd of fewer than 2 000 supporters who had turned out in solidarity with him.
Zwelinzima Vavi, then general secretary of union federation Cosatu, his South African Communist Party counterpart Blade Nzimande and then ANC Youth League president Julius Malema are all now Zuma’s enemies and, like the huge crowds that marked his appearances back in the day, they were gone.
Instead, Zuma was left with ousted KwaZulu-Natal ANC provincial secretary Super Zuma, Bishop Vusi Dube (number 44 in the provincial legislature) and fraudster Carl Niehaus to whip up the crowd ahead of his address after Monday’s hearing. They were joined on stage by Zuma’s sons Duduzane and Edward, and provincial ANC MPL Meshack Radebe, who sat with KwaZulu-Natal public safety MEC Mxolisi Kaunda in the public gallery.
But, the bulk of the provincial ANC leadership — including chairperson Sihle Zikalala, who took his oath as premier under Ramaphosa’s leadership at the legislature building around the corner from the court on Wednesday — was nowhere to be seen.
The party’s colours were there on supporters’ T-shirts and on the mobile stage, but the absence of the ANC in the proceedings was written all over the square outside the courthouse.
The public felt its absence too. Unlike Zuma’s earlier court appearances, at which supporters were fed, members of the public who came in solidarity with the former head of state had to go hungry or provide for themselves.