Carol Paton Deputy editor: Business Day
Jacob Zuma. Picture: ALON SKUY​
Jacob Zuma. Picture: ALON SKUY​

The end of Jacob Zuma, which it is hoped will come in between the writing of this column and its publication, will not have come a moment too soon for many of us.

Talk of a deal that would spare him from jail were he to testify against the Gupta family is preposterous.

It’s preposterous because Zuma was no bystander in their crimes; he was the villain who invited them in. It’s also preposterous because no guarantee against prosecution can be provided by a political negotiation.

Just ask Tony Yengeni how a politically negotiated "plea bargain" worked out for him.

In the months after it emerged that he had received a substantial discount on a car from one of the companies involved in the arms deal, Yengeni was charged with fraud. In January 2003 he met then justice minister Penuell Maduna and then national director of public prosecutions Bulelani Ngcuka, at Maduna’s home and was persuaded to avoid a lengthy trial and plead guilty. In return, he later claimed in court papers, Ngcuka promised him he would escape with a R5,000 fine.

But when the matter came to court the magistrate slapped him with four years in jail. An outraged Yengeni then took the matter on review, complaining that he had been double-crossed.

It would be in Zuma’s best personal interest to attempt to negotiate a plea bargain for both the charges that are yet to emerge related to the Guptas, as well as his pending corruption trial when the time comes, should the prosecution open that door.

Zuma has been careful not to leave a paper trail on controversial decisions such as appointments to boards of state-owned enterprises and ministerial appointments, but once the money flows between the government, the Guptas and the foundations to which Zuma is linked are scrutinised, proof of graft will not be far away.

It would of course be deeply hypocritical if he were to seek a plea bargain. All through his life Zuma has insisted that in his many relationships involving friends and favours he has done nothing wrong.

In the trial of Schabir Shaik it was Zuma himself who pressured Shaik against a guilty plea, again insisting that no corruption had been committed. It is a point over which the Shaik family remains bitter: a plea bargain to a lesser charge may well have kept Shaik out of jail. In the scale of things, though, hypocrisy is maybe a lesser crime. The same goes for the personal betrayal he would commit were he to testify against his own son.

No guarantee against prosecution can be provided by a political negotiation.

In the meantime, we have had plenty of time to observe the modus operandi of the man who will take his place, Cyril Ramaphosa.

If there is nothing definite on the criminal justice front that Ramaphosa was able to offer Zuma, then what was the two weeks of talking all about? Ramaphosa has urged that Zuma should not be humiliated. This is partly because of Ramaphosa’s overdeveloped sense of decorum, but it is also due to his sense of pragmatism and caution. While a split in the ANC hasn’t looked that likely since the Zuma faction lost at the elective conference, it was important for Ramaphosa to avoid a low-intensity war against his leadership.

Local politics in several provinces is intensely contested, and so while neither a split nor ethnic mobilisation have looked likely, the potential for increased and sporadic tension exists. This is particularly so in KwaZulu-Natal, where internal factionalism between the SA Communist Party and the ANC has already seen a recurrence of political killings, and where the ANC in the provinces remains split into two factions.

The question for the immediate future is how far Ramaphosa will stretch his desire to preserve the unity of the ANC. There are times when the unity of the ANC has been good for the country, as it has brought certainty and stability. But there are times, too, when it has been very bad. The most extreme example has been the damage done to the economy and the country’s institutions as the ANC held on to Zuma in the interests of holding the party together.

This is a choice Ramaphosa will come up against many times. It will be implicit in everything he does and explicit in the choices he makes about pursuing corruption in government, upholding ethical leadership in the ANC and in his attitude to the range of unhealthy vested interests that have attached themselves to every dimension of political and public life in SA.

If these are to be ignored or soft-pedalled to preserve the unity of the ANC, we will not be substantially better off than we have been under Zuma.

Paton is deputy editor.

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