/ 20 July 2023

Zuma unable to stomach his own medicine

Safrica Court Politics Corruption Trial Zuma
Former president Jacob Zuma. (Photo by Jerome Delay / POOL / AFP)

Psychologists often stress that insight is not a productive device in the counselling of the elderly. The reason for this is fairly obvious. If you have been constructing an illusion your whole life, it would be devastating to rebuild it on the ruins of nothing. 

But in the case of former president Jacob Zuma, who’s granting of his medical parole by his friend Arthur Fraser was taken away by the Constitutional Court on 14 July, such insight could conceivably have a valuable social and political purpose. 

uBaba was sentenced to 15 months imprisonment for snubbing the Zondo Commission of Inquiry into Alleged State Capture by refusing to testify, allegedly because Raymond Zondo, the chairperson of the commission, was prejudiced towards Msholozi (Zuma’s clan name). I would not belabour the point that uBaba was aware of this alleged blemish when he initially signed the commission into law, but this issue illustrates how streetwise uBaba is. 

At this point Msholozi is safely tucked up somewhere in Russia seeking (appropriately) treatment for an undisclosed illness. Even though the JZ Foundation has said that his departure on 11 July 2019 to Russia was coincidental with (read: unrelated to) the Constitutional Court’s judgment a few days later, with JZ, being as streetwise as he surely is, it was awfully prescient. 

When Zuma was initially finally persuaded to surrender himself in July 2021 to a fairly cosy outfit in the Natal Midlands to serve his sentence, all hell broke loose with rioting and destruction in KZN and Gauteng, where the majority of Zulu-speaking South Africans (representing Msholozi’s support base) reside. Many lives were lost and billions of rands in damages were caused. 

Whether or not the SAPS and crime/state intelligence were aware of, or even complicit in, the chaos that was about to wash over South Africa, is still a contentious point. 

But all is not what it seems. Two months into his sentence, Zuma’s case had the good fortune to come to the attention of Fraser, the national commissioner of correctional services and, as it so happens, uBaba’s former spy chief. Leaving aside that Fraser almost certainly had an irreconcilable conflict of interest (his friendship with Msholozi), the greater concern is that Fraser saw it fit to override the determination (and recommendation) of the medical parole advisory board, which was that Zuma was not a suitable candidate for medical parole. 

This act of overriding the determination of the board was certainly not within the powers of the commissioner, but if Zondo’s alleged conflict of interest bothered uBaba at all, Fraser’s certainly did not. Zuma was just happy to be home, surrounded by well wishers and his adoring family. But the occasion is rich with irony. 

Stanley Cohen, a Wits graduate born and bred in Jozi who went on to become professor of sociology at the London School of Economics and an expert on crimes committed by the state, argues that the (perhaps more monstrous) crimes of the rich and powerful are not even recognised as crimes. 

In particular, the crime without recognition which I am referring to, is uBaba’s nurturing and facilitating of an animal known as the prison industrial-complex (PIC) during his disastrous and, according to President Cyril Ramaphosa, nine wasted years in office. As long ago as 1998, Eric Schlosser defined the PIC in the context of the US for The Atlantic, “as prison expansion without any actual need”. 

The Bosasa-DCS (department of corrections services) tender and supply scandal (which lasted at least a decade) is an excellent example of the PIC on local soil. According to the report produced by the Special Investigative Unit for parliament in 2009: “The general findings of the SIU in relation to these four tenders were that the proper procurement processes were not followed by DCS.  This was aggravated by the payments made to the CFO and accounting officer at the time that tenders were being awarded to this company and its affiliates. It was also aggravated by the fact that there was such a close working relationship between the CFO, the accounting officer and the service provider company and its affiliates.” 

In the words of James-Brent Styan and Paul Vecchiatto, authors of The Bosasa billions: Smoke, mirrors and Agrizzi (2019), “money was not being used by the department [of correctional services] for the programmes it was intended for”. Rather, diverting funds from legitimate projects to enrich a single service provider was the point of the exercise.

To understand why the PIC was, and is, an evil phenomenon in South Africa, we need to consider the words of Angela Davis, famous prison abolitionist, which is that the link between crime and punishment is much more complicated than it would seem to be — it is not linear but complex.

“Well, the link that is usually assumed in popular and scholarly discourse is that crime produces punishment. What I have tried to do – together with many other public intellectuals, activists, scholars – is to encourage people to think about the possibility that punishment may be the consequence of other forces and not the inevitable consequence of the commission of crime. Which is not to say that people in prisons have not committed what we call ‘crimes’ – I am not making that argument at all … Those communities that are subject to police surveillance are much more likely to produce more bodies for the punishment industry,” Davids writes.

To add to these insights, recent research has shown that many people, particularly youngsters, end up in prison, propelled as a result of trauma into a life of crime. 

In the South African context, the financial incentive for corrupt business practices, as exemplified by the Bosasa-DCS debacle, also shows how making money can complicate the process further. Consider Zuma’s close relationship with Gavin Watson, richly detailed by Angela Agrizzi in his book  Inside the Belly of the Beast: The REAL Bosasa story (2021), as the possible way or ways in which it has entrenched the prison, the absence of which would be an almost unimaginable feature of our social and political landscape. 

By encouraging incarceration as our dominant sentencing regime (as opposed to African-centred sentencing options, such as community service, for example), and by entrenching the PIC on local soil, complicated by South Africa’s harsh stigmatising shaming culture, Msholozi has compounded our crime and recidivism rates to great heights. 

Stigma, as opposed to an integrative shaming culture, following incarceration, makes reoffending almost mandatory. In the words of Australian comparative criminologist John Braithwaite, stigma is “criminogenic” in the management of crime and counter-productive in the fight against crime. 

Stigma, however, is very lucrative in keeping the wheels of the prison system as a business venture in motion. South Africa has one of the highest rates of reoffending in the world and this is not unrelated to the presence of the PIC. 

While uBaba’s unsavoury business practices with the likes of Watson and Bosasa may have propelled many people into prison which might otherwise not have been the case, the likelihood of him returning to face the music is slim, judging by the actions of his Gupta friends. 

For a man who has always declared himself willing to go to prison (even though he reputedly did nothing wrong), our good chief from Nkandla is certainly not rushing back to serve his time. Our pitiful Msholozi is possibly on the run and unconcerned with the burden of spiralling crime on ordinary South Africans, at least partially as a result of his terrible legacy. 

The PIC is arguably a crime committed by the South African state.

While the insight of the monstrous crime of the PIC on local soil might escape uBaba, it is a worthwhile exercise to reflect on the rich irony of a man who enabled the PIC machine for his own greed, yet remains unwilling to stomach a few months of his own medicine. 

Dr Casper Lötter is a conflict criminologist affiliated with North-West University’s School of Philosophy (Potchefstroom) as a research fellow. He has a special interest in cybercrime.

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Mail & Guardian.