Former president Jacob Zuma addresses his supporters in Nkandla, KwaZulu-Natal. Picture: SANDILE NDLOVU
Former president Jacob Zuma addresses his supporters in Nkandla, KwaZulu-Natal. Picture: SANDILE NDLOVU

When he spoke to his supporters, some of whom passed themselves off as representatives of a disbanded Umkhonto we Sizwe Military Veterans Association, convicted former president Jacob Zuma said there was going to be “trouble” if he is forced to go to jail to serve a 15-month sentence for defying the Constitutional Court order to appear before the state capture commission. 

It is safe to assume Zuma struck the same defiant tone to a group of ANC national and provincial leaders deployed to his home in Nkandla to convince him to respect the Constitutional Court judgment after the governing party cancelled the national executive committee meeting that had been scheduled for this past weekend.  

Images of hundreds of his angry supporters, carrying placards peddling wild conspiracy theories, gridlocking traffic and some firing guns into the air, have all but reinforced cries from his inner circle that the police should stand back because their action will inflame tensions and possibly result in deadly confrontation with Zuma supporters. 

But we cannot allow Zuma, who in his public address on Sunday predictably failed to tell throngs of supporters breaking Covid-19 social distancing and gathering rules to go home, to hold our democracy hostage. A democracy where decisions are made by angry mobs threatening violence, rather than the rule of law, is not a democracy at all.  

The Constitutional Court drove this point home forcefully last week, conjuring up jubilant memories of 2016, when it moved to reassert itself as the supreme adjudicator of the law in a country that has lost its way to what we all know to be right, just and decent. It was the day the apex court, with cogent, indisputable legal reasoning, ordered then president Zuma to pay back R7.8m in taxpayers’ money spent on his Nkandla homestead, and declared that he had failed to uphold and respect the constitution.

Last week the Constitutional Court again swung into action to restore our faith in our democracy when it gave Zuma a 15-month jail term for defying its order to appear before the state capture commission, unleashing a wave of praise from civil society and opposition political parties.  

The conviction, which shows how far Zuma has fallen from grace after being among the leaders imprisoned for fighting for a society where everyone is equal before the law, comes with an instruction to police minister Bheki Cele and commissioner Khehla Sitole to order the arrest of the former leader if he fails to voluntarily turn himself in.

Legal experts and police say that in agreeing to hear his application to have the judgment set aside the Constitutional Court has not given him a lifeline. His failure to voluntarily turn himself in on Sunday begins the three-day countdown for Cele and Sithole to enforce the law. This can, however, be overturned by a fresh order of the court.  

Before the ruling Zuma, who had disdainfully spurned reasonable opportunities to give reasons that could have mitigated his sentence, was pinning his hopes on a suspended sentence, slyly calculating that the custodians of our constitutional order would not risk the political fallout from sending a former president who still enjoys public support, to jail.

The apex court coherently laid out how the overall damage caused to society by the conduct of Zuma, who has called the sentence a “political statement of exemplary punishment” and maintains he is the victim of a political witch hunt, risked rendering the judiciary ineffective and eventually powerless. “If this conduct is met with impunity he will do significant damage to the rule of law,” judge Sisi Khampepe said last week as she read the majority judgment. 

Given the potentially dark consequences of enforcing the rule of law, law-enforcement agencies under the direction of their political masters might be tempted to close their eyes to what we all know to be wrong; to tolerate Zuma’s calculated assault on the judiciary. This would be a grave mistake that would send the country down a slippery slope. It would be a shame to watch meekly while those tasked with enforcing the law showed the same contempt Zuma has shown for the social order that many died for in the struggle against apartheid.

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