Former president Jacob Zuma. Picture: Rogan Ward
Former president Jacob Zuma. Picture: Rogan Ward

Back in 2015, former president Jacob Zuma mused that “if I was a dictator, I would change a few things”. 

Speaking to the SA Local Government Association, he rambled incoherently about what he would do in such a scenario, bemoaning that “in a democracy you can say whatever you like. There is freedom of speech. Sometimes you don’t understand limits of freedom of speech. We just say anything to anyone.”

You can imagine there are many inside the ANC who share the sentiment, since the party keeps getting a bloody nose in the courts. How fair is it, they must think, that the party won the last election, yet everyone just keeps getting in the way of allowing it to do as it pleases.

Just because it couldn’t sort itself out to register election candidates in 94 municipalities by the August 23 deadline, and now risks losing most of KwaZulu-Natal and hardly competing in the Western Cape, why shouldn’t it shift the goalposts to suit itself? 

Why can’t it just move the election to February? It is the ruling party, after all.

On Friday, the Constitutional Court dismissed this argument, ordering that the election must go ahead by no later than November 1. Which means the ANC is now on its knees, begging the Electoral Commission of SA (IEC) to reopen the registration process. 

Of course you know what Zuma would have said of the court’s decision that the election must go ahead in contravention of the ANC’s wishes. More than once, Zuma railed against what he described as a “judicial dictatorship”.

In March, amid arguments for why he had to appear before the Zondo commission, Zuma moaned that the court is “continuously taking extra powers to themselves to the detriment of legitimate democratic processes”.

While you might write that off as the whingeing of a solitary school thug being placed in detention, the fact is that even in the “new dawn ANC” there are many who dislike the fact that it is the constitution, not the ruling party, which is the apex power. 

Had Zuma been a dictator, no doubt he’d have changed that.

Mercifully, the jailbird isn’t a dictator; mercifully, the jailbird isn’t even in power any more. More dubiously, however, he won’t even be in jail any more pretty soon.

This is because, on Sunday, the correctional services department decided to release him early from the Estcourt Correctional Centre on “medical parole”, which means he can serve the rest of his 15-month sentence for contempt of court under supervision.

Those for whom the democratic constitutional state is an inconvenience celebrated this on Sunday — though some, like Andile Lungisa and Carl Niehaus, claimed Zuma should have been released without conditions anyway. Co-operative governance minister Nkosazana Dlamini Zuma described Zuma’s release as “a welcome relief to many of us”.

But it’s no surprise that after the “medical parole” of the “terminally ill” Schabir Shaik in 2009 (he was sentenced to 15 years in jail), the public remains justifiably sceptical. 

At the time, Shaik’s doctors said he was “in the final phase of a terminal disease”, had suffered a stroke and was losing his eyesight — which must have made his subsequent golf outings far more tricky than it might at first appear.

There’s also the case of former police commissioner Jackie Selebi, who was convicted under the corruption act in 2010 but released on “medical parole” in July 2012 after serving just 219 days of his 15-year sentence. Selebi died in January 2015.

“A little more reasoning”

In Zuma’s case, this scepticism is heightened by the fact that the decision to release him was taken by Zuma’s former director-general of state security, Arthur Fraser.

As News24 reported, Fraser’s contract as national commissioner of correctional services is due to expire on September 25. Rather like Bill Clinton or Donald Trump, who used their last few hours in office to push through a swathe of shady pardons, this parole then may just have been one of Fraser’s last meaningful official acts.

This is why a naked statement that Zuma was released after the government received a “medical report” was never going to fly. To assuage the justifiable mistrust, that medical report will have to be released, and soon.

As Lawson Naidoo of the Council for the Advancement of the SA Constitution (Casac) told News24: “A little more reasoning around the medical condition ought to have been given.”   

Already, several opposition politicians have demanded the full record.

Mmusi Maimane’s One SA Movement said it will lodge an access to information request for this, to ensure the decision was taken “in good faith”.

“We cannot afford to go down the Jackie Selebi or Schabir Shaik path, whereby well-connected individuals are granted medical parole in dubious circumstances,” he said.

The DA’s John Steenhuisen has described the parole as “entirely unlawful” and says he’ll also demand that Fraser be summoned to parliament to explain. 

“A report on the health status of any prisoner must be subject to recommendation by an independent board to confirm, in truth, that a prisoner is indeed deserving of medical parole,” he says. “Given that Zuma publicly refused to be examined by an independent medical professional, let alone a medical advisory board, this decision is a violation of the act.”

It’s hard not to imagine that politics wasn’t a consideration in the parole — even if there’s no section of the act which would allow this.  The politicians would have been seriously rattled about the prospect of anything serious happening to Zuma behind bars, given July’s unrest. 

It’s also hard not to imagine this parole seriously had nothing to do with the ANC’s dimming electoral prospects in KwaZulu-Natal.

As it is, the ANC’s future in KwaZulu-Natal is far from assured, given how it bungled the candidate registration process. The party had bet — wrongly — that this defect would be cured had the Constitutional Court rubber-stamped a delay in the election last week. 

Today, the IEC will likely reveal whether it will reopen the registration process, after Friday’s Constitutional Court order. If it agrees, this would grant the ANC an extraordinary reprieve, after the party shot itself in the head by failing to do the one thing politicians are hard-wired to do: retain power.

Pierre de Vos, who teaches constitutional law at the University of Cape Town, says he believes the court’s order on Friday “does not allow for the reopening of the nomination process”. At the very least, he says, it certainly does not require the IEC to reopen registration.

This is because the court said the original election timetable — which set August 23 as the deadline to register candidates — remains legally binding. 

But as De Vos points out, “the order provides for two possible exceptions to the preservation of the original election timetable”: first, the IEC can amend the timetable to accommodate any voter registration weekend, or make amendments “reasonably necessitated” by the reopening of the voters roll until September 10.

Today, it seems, is D-Day. The IEC will likely reveal how robustly it is interpreting this order, and whether it’ll throw the ANC a lifeline. 

But the electoral body must surely know that if it does so, it must gird itself for a bitter fight against those parties that bothered to comply with the rules in the first place.

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