Former president Jacob Zuma. Picture: LULAMA ZENZILE
Former president Jacob Zuma. Picture: LULAMA ZENZILE

The simple and obvious are often our best points of departure. In recent articles I’ve stressed repeatedly that “words matter”. Biblically, we recall, “God said, ‘Let there be light.’ And there was light.” The promise and marvel of this myth is the coincidence of words and the world, the perfect fit between language and reality. 

Never such innocence again. In a post-truth world, in a post-Trump and post-Zuma world, we have sound-bytes and spin, dis- and misinformation. We have “the powerful” trying to “control the narrative”. We have demigods — and clowns — trying to repeat, in their own sinister fashion, the initiatory speech act of God, and make the world over in the malign image of their own desires.

In SA our jointly shared sacred text is the constitution. Or that is the hope. For the arrangement of our political and civil life, it constitutes “the word”. Its high priests are the judges of the Constitutional Court. Like all sacred texts, it is open to interpretation. In our heady days of litigation we must remember that the interpretative activity most central to our constitutional democracy and, therefore, most crucial to our political order, are the decisions of the Constitutional Court.

We should also recall that interpretation has for centuries been based upon arguments for or against documents considered binding. Vico in relation to Roman Law, or the Talmudic rabbis to the Mosaic law, are signal examples.

While considered binding, “the law” and “the word” always paradoxically required interpretation. For this reason the law itself becomes not just an instrument for resolving conflict, but is itself an agent of (potential) conflict. French intellectual Roland Barthes asked, “Is it not value that establishes the political, the order of society?”

Values change over time. Values are not shared by all within a polis. But “the order of society” requires the establishment of ground rules, foundational principles. These we find in our constitution, and it is direction on these that the judges of the Constitutional Court, intentionally drawn from diverse backgrounds, provide for us.

It is more than savagely ironic that those claiming abuse of the law should stoop to the gutter in seeking to undermine legal principle and process

If the fabric of society is not to unravel, if we are to be knit together as a people, we have to be “united in our diversity”. This unity relies on acceptance of the founding principles of our constitutional democracy and on acceptance of the court’s interpretations of those principles.

This simple and obvious framework seems apposite in considering the momentous days running from July 1 — when the Constitutional Court sentenced Jacob Zuma to 15 months’ imprisonment for contempt of court —  to July 9, when the Pietermaritzburg high court dismissed, in one line, the former president’s application to have his arrest suspended pending the outcome of his rescission application to the Constitutional Court.

All week the commentariat have had a ball. The to and fro of politicking mesmerised and nauseated the nation. But finally, as the cliché almost has it, “the centre held”. For now. Relief is mixed with poignance that it should have come to this. Commentators are eager to temper Schadenfreude with stern commitment to the letter of the law. Most of the country can now return to lamenting the outbreak of Covid-19 in the Springbok, Georgian and British & Irish Lions rugby camps.

Let us not get bogged down in detail. What happened conforms to the ancient paradigm of hubris followed by nemesis. In that reading order has prevailed. The “Big Man” was exposed as a hollow man. Constitutionalism trumped populism. Bragadoccio lost to principle.

Fatally flawed

The commentariat by and large did not distinguish itself. Too many succumbed to the spectre of “another Marikana”. The latter was resorted to by Zuma and his allies, most notably the now-arrested Carl Niehaus, fraudster and liar. That many “experts” haunted us with that chimera is more than unfortunate. It fostered scepticism about the rule of law and constitutionalism, a disbelief that colluded with the anticonstitutionalist rhetoric of the mobsters.

Others — I single out journalist and broadcaster JJ Tabane — fulminated about a “lack of leadership,” claiming President Cyril Ramaphosa should have “intervened”. Strategically that would have been fatally flawed. Constitutionally, it would have been deleterious.

A detail. On Sunday evening after Zuma’s halting reading from his prepared and largely untruthful and illogical text, the grinningly hubristic spokesperson for his foundation, Mzwanele Manyi, announced that advocate Dali Mpofu “had some tricks up his sleeve”. On July 6 said advocate took up more than a court day spouting rubbish at judge Bhekisisa Mnguni, who was the epitome of patience.

Zuma’s cause-pleader (in ancient Rome the diminishing term for such a person was causidicus) said, “unless he [Mpofu] can be shown a precedent indicating that the [high court] does not have jurisdiction” then it must have jurisdiction. All of SA’s jurisprudence is a precedent, as any relatively well-educated schoolchild knows. It is more than savagely ironic that those claiming abuse of the law should stoop to the gutter in seeking to undermine legal principle and process.

Our courts are overworked and have huge backlogs. Yet a high court must be subjected to hours of gobbledegook? The one-line dismissal of the action, as given by Justice Mnguni at 11.30am on July 9, was all Mpofu’s “tricks” deserved. Yet, does the SA Law Society — or the National Prosecuting Authority — not have remedies for opportunistic, criminally dishonest lawyering? If Mpofu wanted centre stage he was magnificently upstaged.

From midnight on July 5 Zuma was once more in contempt of court. Equally bad, and evidenced by the drivel of his media conference, by his refusal to criticise his “followers” in open breach of emergency regulations, by his untruths and special pleadings, he was in contempt of our values, of the order of our society, and the basic meanings of words.

For now, these crucial lode stars shine brightly again, and words and reality cohere.

• Trengove-Jones is a retired Wits University lecturer.

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