Former president Jacob Zuma speaks to his supporters outside his Nkandla homestead. Picture: Lulama Zenzile
Former president Jacob Zuma speaks to his supporters outside his Nkandla homestead. Picture: Lulama Zenzile

“Saddam se gat” screamed Afrikaans daily Die Burger on December 14 2003, announcing the capture of Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein by US forces.  The previous day the soldiers had found Hussein hiding in a six- to eight-foot deep hole. His unkempt hair and bushy beard were all signs that he had seen better days.  

Another big man found in hiding was Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi.  The deposed leader of Libya was caught like a “rat” in a drain, humiliated and shot, according to news agency Reuters on October 21, 2011.  

All that remained of Gaddafi, at that point, were the gold-plated cutlery, crystal champagne glasses, Versace and Armani suits and rows of unworn designer shoes at the luxurious seaside compounds of his children. Protestors and journalists were able to walk around and curse Gaddafi after viewing his golden trappings. Jacob Zuma does not face the prospect of a Gaddafi-style execution, at least not from SA’s authorities. But his wish to avoid jail ended up being a messy affair. 

Last night, Zuma submitted himself to the Estcourt prison. It meant there was no showdown between the police and his supporters at Nkandla, some of whom were armed. Which is just as well, since the police don’t have much of a track record of excellent public order policing.

One wonders what happened to all the training our officers got ahead of the 2010 Fifa World Cup, because, even after that, the police have murdered scores of demonstrators needlessly. Think of the Marikana massacre, the Andries Tatane murder and the Brits water protests – just three examples of our ill-prepared police.

The protracted Zuma affair was at the Pietermaritzburg high court on Tuesday, where he applied for the stay of his arrest warrant. Having watched the Zuma script over the past decade and a half, I can only assume that these legal moves are straight out of his Stalingrad textbook: buy time and create confusion, while working out yet another plan to buy more time and sow more confusion. 

This time, however, he didn’t succeed. In part this was because deputy chief justice Raymond Zondo shortened the legal route, as the commission he heads chose to approach the Constitutional Court directly to judge Zuma guilty of contempt of court. Zuma ran helter-skelter, looking for junior courts whose time he could abuse. 

All the while he enjoyed the “protection” of an army of human shields. They were ready to die for him, we were told — and sadly, that literally could have happened in this instance, since Zuma opted for the Samson route of taking everyone down with him. 

The African National Congress (ANC) has long wised up to Zuma’s suicide bomber tricks. That is why Zuma and his proxies were rejected at the Nasrec conference. He was dumped by David Mabuza, who made a last-minute floor-crossing move to the Cyril Ramaphosa camp. After all, no smart politician wants to be associated with a suicide bomber: Mabuza and the others enjoyed being in power and realised that Zuma would send them to the opposition ranks had the “NDZ17” camp prevailed in 2017.

The ANC under Ramaphosa realised it needed to keep a healthy social distance from Zuma, and it has done so since Zuma was ejected from the Union Buildings in February 2018. Nonetheless, the ANC’s approach to the former president has been typically messy, as it doesn’t have the resolve to cut the poisonous arm off completely.

There was last-minute angst from police minister Bheki Cele, who clearly had no desire to arrest Zuma. This was despite the dominant legal opinion being that the rescission application did not suspend the arrest warrant and that Cele and the police had to get on with the obvious task. 

It’s unclear precisely what wrangling took place behind closed doors last night, but it surely included attempts to exult in non-existent cultural norms and feign camaraderie with an elder, former president, freedom fighter and revolutionary. 

But it was always going to be futile: Zuma seems to want the democratic project chopped off at the roots so that his crime can go unpunished. What could be more unrevolutionary than that? 

Eventually, Zuma had to reckon with his reality. He is not the first African leader or former president, even globally, to go to jail, if that is any consolation. He can draw from the experiences of Liberia’s Charles Taylor and Brazil’s leftist Lula da Silva, who once even harboured the ambition of a successful presidential race from behind bars. 

Zuma’s arrest is the first move in a downward spiral through the deep and dark hole he dug for himself since the arms deal started two decades ago.  His son Duduzane, and Duduzane’s almost three dozen siblings, might not even enjoy the Nkandla compound or national monument to corruption for long.

Potentially, Zuma has booked access tickets to a hellish future for his family. Duduzane, for one, has some questions of his own to answer in the state capture affair, as well as in the homicide and reckless driving probe that the National Prosecuting Authority has resurrected. 

Still, it’s hard not to enjoy the similarities between Zuma’s spokesperson, Jimmy Manyi, and Hussein’s Comical Ali. Manyi tweeted all day Tuesday that his man was winning the legal arguments — just like Ali (real name Mohammed Saeed al-Sahhaf) kept broadcasting victory boasts until the last minute while Bagdad was being sacked.

Ali spoke effusively about Iraqi forces butchering the Americans even as his boss was hiding in a hole — or gat, as they say in Afrikaans. You can imagine Manyi tweeting “It will never happen”, even as Zuma was being booked into the Estcourt prison last night.

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