Jacob Zuma

Former President, Jacob Zuma.

Photo: State Capture Inquiry

Zuma sentence is a victory for South African democracy

This is a singularly strong and direct message to other bad egg members of the ANC that no one is above the law.

Jacob Zuma

Former President, Jacob Zuma.

Photo: State Capture Inquiry

That a former president has been charged and sentenced to imprisonment in South Africa is, inarguably, a totemic moment for our nascent and much challenged democracy. It is worth remembering the symbolism of the Constitutional Court, the highest judicial body in the land and an embodiment of the rule of law.

The very building is on the sight of what was once the most feared prison in the country, the Old Fort, which amongst many political prisoners housed none other than Nelson Mandela. The new constitutional court was itself built out of the rubble from the old prison.

As the first president of a democratic South Africa and an ex-lawyer himself, Mandela was under no illusions as to not only how essential the court would be in a democratic South Africa but also the challenges and threats it would face to uphold the law. When he opened the court in 1995, Madiba warned that it would be tested not only by “direct assaults” but also “insidious corrosion”. 

“The highest and the most humble in the land all, without exception, owe allegiance to the same document, the same principles,” and the court would have a “lofty but also lonely” task to ensure that they did, he said.


Now, almost thirty years later, it can be said that the black, green and red robed judges of the court have indeed risen to the challenge set by Mandela by ruling that no one is above the law, not even an ex-President of the Republic. Unlike in those days of apartheid, where the law ruled that some citizens are subject to different laws based on the colour of their skin, it has been shown that despite being pushed to the very limit the rule of law in a democratic South Africa applies to everyone, equally.

This is clearly a triumph, and a wonderful day for South African democracy. However, a number of questions remain.

First, it is worth pointing out that Zuma has not (yet) been convicted and sentenced on charges of corruption. Indeed those legal wrangles are simply ongoing. What he faces now is a sentence based on his no show at the Zondo Commission, which he himself authorized when president. It therefore remains to be seen whether if he now gives in and decides to stand before the Commission if the sentence will be overruled.

Second, this ruling reminds one in some respects of Al Capone being eventually sentenced not for bootlegging, gangsterism or smuggling, but for tax evasion. While it is a relief that the court did give him 15 months in prison, questions remain about the ability to successfully prosecute him for state capture and corruption, the issues for which legal precedent is most desperately needed.


Finally, this is a singularly strong and direct message to other bad egg members of the ANC that no one is above the law. According to veteran political analyst William Gumede, many of them will now be “shaking in their boots”. However, as ever martyrdom is a risk. If Zuma does go to jail, the RET faction of the party may be able to argue more convincingly that they are facing a white led and funded takeover of the ANC and the party who are instrumentalising the judiciary to avert the course of the National Democratic Revolution or somesuch other Marxist nonsense. It will be billed as the return of White Minority Capital.

But for the moment, the RET faction has never looked weaker and Ramaphosa’s place in the party has never looked more secure. While South Africa’s economy might be in freefall, Eskom more decrepit than ever and there may be no end to this interminable pandemic in sight, at least South Africans cant take this moment to toast the courage of our most senior judges and the resilience of our legal system. 

Especially for Ramaphose, this is some much needed good news, however, to once again cite Madiba, “After climbing a great hill, one only finds that there are many more hills to climb”.

This is just another stop on the long journey which is building a democratic South Africa. Furthermore, it remains to be seen if this is a turning point on a road back to more accountable democracy or a high watermark of judicial independence. Only time will tell.