Editorial: It’s done – but the Zuma saga will affect Ramaphosa’s long game

It ended, mercifully, in anticlimatic rather than Hollywood style, just before midnight. 

By the early hours of Thursday morning, Jacob Zuma was on one side of a cell door and the country he corrupted on the other. There is cause for reflection on both sides.

And although one dare not hope it dawned on him then, or ever will, that he was the author of his own descent, we have to realise that we brought Zuma and the — the ravages of his nine years in office and the plot twists of the last 10 days — upon ourselves.

He did not lead a rebel army from Nkandla to Pretoria in 2008; we elected him to the Union Buildings. It is comforting that like former Congolese vice-president and militia leader Jean-Pierre Bemba, he could be arrested, in this case not for war crimes but criminal onslaught on the rule of law.

We must take comfort too in the fact that the judicial system allows him every fair defence, as tiresome as the courtroom drama has become. It is testament to our political health that this was as available to Zuma as it was to Nicolas Sarkozy.

If France has become accustomed to putting former leaders on trial, South Africa is not only new to it but arguably the only democracy contemplating consigning a former president to prison for a considerable length of time.

The man who led Africa’s biggest economy, and broke it, may be released on parole after purging a quarter of his 15-month sentence, but he risks a far longer sentence in his corruption trial.

In that case, Zuma and his counsel will continue to cast doubt on the integrity of the justice system, but it will seem less menacing now after his attempt to defy the order of the apex court came to nought.

The worry is not what happens inside court, but what transpired outside it, in the political space between Justice Sisi Khampepe’s ruling and Zuma’s arrest by his own protection officers.

By Wednesday, there were whispers the court should release a statement to make clear that its order stood and the police could not delay another day. But it’s not the place of the court. The judges had spoken. Any call to do more still was a reflection on President Cyril Ramaphosa’s detached silence. 

As usual, he allowed the process to unfold. It is politically astute to let the law deal with his political opponents rather than be accused of using organs of state to purge them.

But while the president habitually plays the long game, hard blows land on the public body, and the damage is left “to percolate”, as the Zondo commission argued in court. 

It allowed a minister to write to the chief justice, on no authority, to say he will let a deadline to carry out a court order pass. The doubt that ensued is corrosive in an immature nation that this week, as in 1994, did something exceptional, but cannot take the mundanities of a full-grown democracy — say, corrupt ministers resigning — for granted.

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