As Zuma’s court case looms, anti- and pro-Zuma crusades intensify

ANC veterans, prominent individuals and organisations across civil society and religious and labour sectors have mobilised a nationwide campaign called “Defend our Democracy”. Signed by a list of signatories such as apartheid activists, Murphy Morobe and Reverend Frank Chikane, a joint statement states: “Defend our democracy. Defend our constitution!” 

The campaign calls for every South African to protect the country’s constitution.

“Our future as a democracy is only as secure as our refusal to tolerate the destabilisation of the state and our unyielding defence of the constitution … We therefore call on all people of goodwill to vigorously oppose this threat to our democracy and to defend the abiding values enshrined in the constitution,” reads the statement.

The Defend our Democracy campaign condemns the lack of political accountability and the undermining of the South African constitution and judicial system. It makes strong reference to Jacob Zuma, “a former president of our country” who “once described in a Constitutional Court judgement as [the court] embodying the ‘constitutional being’ of the Republic, [and has since] defied an order of the same court,” instructing him to appear before the Zondo Commission. 

Since the campaign’s launch on 18 March 2021, it has received thousands of new signatures for its online petition, with several supporters wearing orange gathered outside the Constitutional Court in Johannesburg on 22 March 2020. The protect-democracy campaign also calls on South Africans to wear orange on Thursday, 25 March, when former president Jacob Zuma’s matter of contempt is set to be heard in court.

But JZ’s supporters also plan to march to the ConCourt on Thursday, under the banner “Defending president Jacob Zuma’s rights”. A poster circulating on social media invites supporters to stop “judicial capture” and join the march. Zuma publicly maintains he is a victim of “judicial abuse”.

Despite the marches playing off in the background, Zuma’s court matter of contempt will commence on Thursday. 

The gist of Zuma’s latest court case

Zuma has flouted the highest court in the country and at the same time carried out a public onslaught against the same court. 

On 28 January 2021, Zuma deliberately disobeyed a Constitutional Court order by not pitching to testify at the Zondo commission of inquiry into state capture. This has mounted the number of times he undermined the Zondo commission — which the Zuma government launched in January 2018 — to three times. Zuma walked out of the commission’s proceedings in November 2020 and did not appear, twice this year, on the dates set out for his appearance. 

The court application against Zuma reads that he “deliberately and in bad faith defied an order of this Court. He has also launched unjustified public attacks on this Court, the Commission, and the institution of the judiciary”.

The Zondo commission claims “the rule of law and the right of access to courts would be rendered meaningless if court orders could be ignored with impunity”, adding that Zuma “has no legally valid reason for the disobedience, nor are his tirades against this Court and the judiciary fair or justified”.

A matter of urgency

The court matter is one of urgency, as the commission argues that Zuma sets an example by his words and conduct: “When Mr Zuma undermines the integrity and authority of this Court, and the judicial system as a whole, there is a grave risk that he will inspire others to do so.”

Possible sentence

Contempt of court is a criminal offence and can result in two years of imprisonment. The Zondo commission asked for a punitive order in the form of an unsuspended term of imprisonment, describing the case as “a unique and extreme case of contempt of court, for which there is no meaningful precedent”.
Zuma failed to justify or explain his actions and has missed the date to file any answering affidavits in the matter of contempt against him.

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Eunice Stoltz
Eunice Stoltz is a general news reporter at the Mail & Guardian.

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