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Zuma’s long walk to the dock

Thursday.

It’s day 336 of the Covid-19 national lockdown. 

Like many of my fellow South Africans, I was relieved when former president Jacob Zuma — or at least his lawyers — pitched up at the Pietermaritzburg high court on Tuesday for the pre-trial hearing in his fraud and corruption case.

I’d been worried that the former head of state’s unhappiness with the judiciary would extend to the bench in Pietermaritzburg and result in a no-show, or a walkout. 

Or an application for Judge Nathi Chili to recuse himself because one of the younger Zumas ate his lunch at school in grade seven or something along those lines.

There’s still time, I guess.

Fortunately, Chili made it through the hearing and a trial date was finally set for 17 May. After what feels like a lifetime — I covered Zuma’s case until it was thrown out of court by Judge Qedusizi Msimang in 2006 and the trial of his financial adviser, Schabir Shaik, before that so it has been a fair-sized chunk of my life — the show is finally about to start.

It’s been 17 years since Zuma was first charged for fraud and corruption over the payments from Shaik and French arms dealer Thales. 

The payments, if I remember correctly, amounted to about R2.3-million. A fair amount, back in the 1990s, when Zuma was KwaZulu-Natal economic development MEC and allegedly used his influence, not very successfully it turned out, to get Shaik business from the government and from foreign investors and developers. 

Small change, when compared to the amount the state has spent on the case — and the billions it lost during the intervening years, particularly when Zuma was in charge of the country, to corruption — but bribes, nonetheless. Shaik got 15 years for paying the money to Zuma, who was then charged by the National Prosecuting Authority.

If it’s taken 17 years for Zuma to actually stand trial for allegedly taking bribes during the late 1990s, how long will it take for him to get to court over what happened during his two terms as president?

Another 10 years? Twenty? Fifty?

Perhaps Nxamalala will have a change of heart. 

Go quietly. Plead guilty in the corruption case. Appear before Zondo at the state capture commission. Plead guilty to all the charges stemming from evidence before the commission. Get it over and done with. No more Stalingrad. No more attacks on the judiciary.

Perhaps.

But not likely.

If Zuma’s first appearances back in the day are anything to go by, the 17 May corruption trial is likely to be a long, drawn-out affair, full of claims of prosecutorial malfeasance, political conspiracies and general bad behaviour by the prosecuting authority.

Trench warfare in robes, while the faithful toyi-toyi in support of a cat who sold off their future. Perhaps the Covid-19 regulations will keep the faithful at home, watching uBaba finally get his long-awaited day in court on the TV, rather than hitting Market Square for Nxamalala’s lunchtime updates and after-court song and dance.

Perhaps.

Like many of my fellow South Africans, I was relieved — and more than a little grateful — about Finance Minister Tito Mboweni’s decision not to implement the planned hike in personal income tax in Wednesday’s budget. Things are already stretched very, very thin, with the Covid salary cut far from over, nearly a year into the lockdown, so there’s no fat to accommodate any increase in what the state charges me to live.

Payday is still not upon us, so there’s no capacity to pop down to the bottle store and check what impact Tito’s with-immediate-effect-sin-tax increase will have had on the prices at the till. 

The booze and ciggie merchants must have been smiling when Mboweni gave them the go-ahead to hike prices straight away come opening time. Not that they wouldn’t have done so already. Now they can blame Tito when the customers start ranting, rather than having to be confronted by their own greed.

Take it or leave it.

Then again, most South Africans were toughened up when it comes to paying an arm and a leg for booze and smokes during levels five and four of the Covid-19 lockdown last year. And over New Year. The real take-it-or-leave-it brigade taught South Africans a hard lesson. Compared to them, Tito’s 8% is a joke: nothing.

Mboweni’s delivery was far from convincing as he rushed his way through his annual budget speech. 

There was very little of the customary flourish and bluster of the man who used to sign our banknotes as he went about his business. 

The odd political dad joke as he delivered the sin-tax increases, especially the immediate effect part; the occasional attempt to draw applause from the masked MPs looking on, but that was it.

Mboweni appeared uncomfortable, almost guilty, as if he were in a hurry to get the budget delivered and over with, so that he’d be back at Magoebaskloof watering the cannabis plants before anybody realised just how thin the budget was — that we’re pretty much flat broke.

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Paddy Harper
Paddy Harper
Storyteller.

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