Jacob Zuma Tax

Photo: Gallo Images/Volksblad/Mlungisi Louw

Is Jacob Zuma going to jail a good thing?

Zuma going to jail will not solve Eskom’s woes, repair battered state finances, roll out vaccines and get through the critical reforms needed to ensure the country doesn’t enter into a debt spiral.

Jacob Zuma Tax

Photo: Gallo Images/Volksblad/Mlungisi Louw

A week, as the cliché most usually attributed to ex UK Prime Minister Harold Macmillan, is a long time in politics. In the convoluted and perplexing world of South African political intrigue, it can feel like eternity.

In the last week, South Africans have endured more twists and turns in the interminable saga that is Jacob Zuma than most nations have had to get through in their existences. There have been more “will he or won’t he?” moments than a season of The Bold and the Beautiful.

I remember all too clearly a conversation I had with a friend in 2004 about Jacob Zuma and whether he would see the inside of a prison cell. Then, despite accusations of corruption and theft, he evaded prosecution, turning himself into a martyr and defeating the Mbeki at Polokwane, with the trial against him being inadvertently dropped due to the “Spy Tapes” which were, at that point, disallowed from being released. 

This week, despite a last-ditch effort to evade the arrest from his legal team, the SAPS mounted their coup de grace shortly before midnight on Wednesday. He is, it seems (although no photo evidence has been forthcoming), in a correctional facility in Estcourt, around 200km from Nkandla.


The question is, however, does this actually matter? What difference will it make? As with most things relating to South African politics, the reality is simultaneous that this matters a lot and it will change everything, but at the same time, it is completely meaningless and futile.

Zuma’s legal strategy has consistently been described in the media as “Stalingrad”, a reference to the devastatingly destructive battle of World War Two. With the Nazis advancing swiftly into the then Soviet Union, the Red Army knew that the town now known as Volgograd would be the critical juncture. They proceeded to throw everything they had into the battle, defending street by street until Hitler’s Wehrmacht was so bogged down and fragmented they were forced to retreat. What was left was a decimated shell of a city, razed to the ground. It was, to use another historical analogy, a “Pyrrhic” victory. 

Could it be so with South Africa?  Perhaps this is the wrong analogy, or rather – we have until now gotten it back to front. The prevailing view is that Zuma and his team are the Soviets, defending inexorably against the ceaseless Nazi Panzer tanks who somewhat dubiously are seen as the rule of law. However, maybe Zuma is actually the attacker, trying to destroy the fabric of the nation, and it is the rule of law and the Constitutional Court judges who are the vanguards in the Soviet defence of the Motherland, inch by inch trying to stop the onslaught that is destroying their nation. Finally, they seem to have turned the corner and be making headway in the battle against the invaders.

Please excuse the tired and drawn out metaphor, but it raises an important question. The battle against Zuma might have been won by the judges and the enforcement of the rule of law, but to what end? In the process of the last twenty years, the country has, like Stalingrad, been almost completely ruined.

In a typically antagonistic rant on his PoliticsWeb blog, RW Johnson explicitly outlined last week just how the ANC has let the country down. Sadly the rot is deeper than imprisoning one man. Zuma going to jail will not solve Eskom’s woes, repair battered state finances, roll out vaccines and get through the critical reforms needed to ensure the country doesn’t enter into a debt spiral.


The reality could be that Zuma (and Ace Magushule) have become straw men to be knocked down so that ANC leaders can crow that they are winning the fight against corruption, while the actual corruption continues unabated behind the scenes. 

Zuma has become a very convenient and expendable fall guy. Should we, therefore, be celebrating this?

The conundrum reminds me of Nasrec. As we celebrated Cyril Ramaphosa being elected to president of the ANC in December 2017, a worrying sense in the pit of my stomach was that this could, actually, be the worst thing that could have happened to South Africa. If Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma had been elected, the ANC would have disintegrated within years, locking them out of power, allowing South Africa to go through the structural changes and rebirth that it has needed for decades. DD Mabuza, however, saw this coming and knew that the only way to remain elected and with access to the lucrative feeding trough would be to elect a puppet with a veneer of respectability and electability.

Now, once again, the rule of law has meant that the ANC is pretending to be a force for change in the country, while the reality is that it is rotten to the core. With Zuma going to jail, something has changed so that nothing will actually change.

Should South Africans, therefore, be celebrating? Momentarily, possibly yes – but until we hold the ruling party accountable at the ballot box we should expect nothing to change for the better. Sadly, because of this prosecution that eventual reckoning may now be further away than ever.