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uBaba’s not ageing out of crime: what is his game?

“To have once been a criminal is no disgrace. To remain a criminal is the disgrace.” ― Malcolm X

Jacob Zuma’s sentencing to 15 months imprisonment for contempt of court — essentially for snubbing the constitutional court and the Zondo Commission of Inquiry into State Capture — is a highpoint in the history of South Africa’s judiciary since our democratic dispensation in 1994. Despite uBaba’s relentless attacks on the integrity of our legal system, sanity prevailed and the judges on the bench in Johannesburg deserve our unreserved applause, including the two judges who delivered their dissenting rulings.

For a 79-year-old Msholozi, puffed up with his own importance, 15 months is not a slap on the wrist. With Umkhonto weSizwe Military Veterans’ Association spokesperson Carl Niehaus demanding that all “righteous” South Africans resist uBaba’s martyring and Zuma’s son, Edward, declaring that only when he has succumbed on the battlefield will Zuma be arrested, the scene is set for uBaba to lap up all the undeserved attention. What drama queens!

Zuma’s ticket for a well-deserved cooling of the heels on the “inside” brought to mind the words of American criminologist Elliott Currie, that the task of criminologists in the 21st century is to enhance the criminological IQ of the public. 

He argues that: “We will need, I think, to shift some emphasis away from the accumulation of research findings to better dissemination of what we already know, and to more skillful promotion of sensible policies based on that knowledge — policies both in and out of the criminal justice system, including policies to directly attack social exclusion and inequality. That doesn’t mean, by the way, just increasing our “access” to elected officials; first and foremost, it means raising public awareness — enhancing the public’s criminological IQ. We need to think through more intensive and creative ways of doing that, because the only way that we will get our political systems to move is if they are facing an already informed and mobilised public.”

By making a continuous effort to enhance a critical public understanding of crime, it is worth stressing that crime is a complex phenomenon with internal linkages rather than it being a straightforward simplistic idea.

In this respect, I would like to highlight two issues in criminology that are pertinent in exploring the Zuma phenomenon. Even as a 79-year-old, he seems to have escaped the notion of ageing out of crime. Offenders, as they grow older, become more weary of losing time and opportunity on the “inside”. But not uBaba. The reasons are at least twofold and should be clear or at least suggested to the public at large.

The first is the increasing global phenomenon of the criminalisation of politicians as well as the politicisation of criminals. In a 2013 paper, Venezuelan journalist, Moisés Naím, considered one of the topmost 100 influential thought leaders by Gottlieb Duttweiler Institute in 2015 for his book The End of Power, contends that the most pressing threat of the new century is the “more ominous consequences that result from the widespread capture of governments by criminal organisations”.

I am not suggesting that the ANC was a criminal organisation when they came to power in 1994; it was, to its great credit, the liberation party, but, lamentably, many have since come to the party (pun intended). As recently as 2017, Oxford historian RW Johnson referred to the “wholesale criminalisation of the [South African] state”. A more recent example is the ways members of the ruling party have used the Covid-19 pandemic as a pretext to criminally enrich themselves on a scale synonymous with hogs feeding feverishly at the trough.

The second issue is that these hogs have found our criminal justice system to be exceedingly hospitable. But then this can be expected from a legal system entrenched in an inordinately unequal society; it treats its accused according to a classist differential. This it has to do to justify and legitimise the (unjustifiable) unequal distribution of income and (especially) ownership inequality.

By way of example, Pat Carlen, the former editor-in-chief of the British Journal of Criminology, demonstrated that the rehabilitation paradigm (the idea that offenders can be reformed to desist from future re-offending) in highly unequal societies is redundant because there happens to be no political willingness to consider and address fundamental social and economic change.

We have seen this notion in action in South Africa over the past decade when Zuma and his cronies looted the state coffers while we paid their plush salaries and extensive perks. The idea that they were employed to look after our interests never seemed to have crossed their minds.

Accordingly, Carlen refers to the idea of rehabilitation as a “penal imaginary” because it is reserved for the poor and the powerless while kingpins such as uBaba were able to manipulate the criminal justice system — and insult the judges — until his luck finally ran out with the constitutional court ruling on Tuesday, 29 June. With no prospect of rehabilitation to ever shape his behaviour, Zuma is unlikely to age out of crime.

If the task of criminologists in the 21st century is to build the public’s criminological IQ, let me just say that it is a rare pleasure to see a fat cat jailed. But it is also illustrative of the redundancy of the idea of rehabilitation in an era where incarceration is the almost exclusive reserve of the poor and the powerless. This is true too for the increasing criminalisation of the state and that of politicians. This is the reason Zuma, and others of his class are not ageing out of crime. Bearing in mind that this is a global phenomenon, politicians of his ilk are career criminals. This, then, is uBaba’s game.

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Casper Lӧtter
Dr Casper Lӧtter is a conflict criminologist affiliated with North-West University’s School of Philosophy (Potchefstroom), South Africa as research fellow.

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