Court hearing leaves South Africa’s Jacob Zuma in awkward spot

Analysis: President today seeks to prevent release of report into links to businessmen

South African president Jacob Zuma: ongoing legal battles are threatening to undo his presidency. Photograph: Sumaya Hisham/Reuters

South African president Jacob Zuma: ongoing legal battles are threatening to undo his presidency. Photograph: Sumaya Hisham/Reuters

 

The political war between South African president Jacob Zuma and his detractors has been in an unpredictable phase for months, but this week should help clarify what the future holds.

Zuma’s ongoing legal battles with the now retired public protector Thuli Madonsela, and a belief among the large swathes of the public that South Africa’s leader is trying to oust finance minister Pravin Gordhan, are now threatening to undo his presidency.

Separate court cases involving all three that were scheduled to begin on November 1st and 2nd were already swaying public opinion against Zuma, and swelling the ranks of those urging him to resign.

In a hearing on Tuesday, Zuma is seeking a court interdict to stop the release of the former public protector’s probe into whether the Gupta brothers – Ajay, Atul and Rajesh – via their cosy relationship with the president, had undue influence over government.

The Guptas are accused of using this relationship to secure state contracts and influence officials, and if the so-called state capture report directly implicates the president in such illegal behaviour, he would come under renewed pressure to stand down.

The second hearing involving Gordhan, in which he was to face charges of fraud and theft relating to alleged misconduct during his time as head of the South African Revenue Service (Sars), was to start tomorrow.

Public opposition to the charges had been growing for weeks and on Monday they were dramatically withdrawn by the National Prosecuting Authority’s (NPA) national director of public prosecution, Shaun Abrahams.

Politically motivated?

The vast majority of independent legal experts had maintained the charges were baseless, and the suspicion was that they were politically motivated.

Most political analysts believe Zuma was the hidden hand directing the NPA to purse the finance minister – who is trying to fight government corruption and overspending – in a bid to get him to voluntarily stand down.

He has repeatedly denied this, but last week evidence emerged that Sars commissioner Tom Moyane – a Zuma loyalist – had ignored his organisation’s own legal advice in relation to the validity of the charges and continued to help the NPA to purse the finance minister.

Sars lawyer David Maphakela, who had been asked to facilitate prosecutors’ investigation of Gordhan, told Moyane he could not get involved in the case for “ethical reasons” as he held a different view to the one pursued by the NPA.

Gordhan had refused to step aside while the charges were hanging over him, and in response to the attack filed his own court application asking that as finance minster, he not be drawn into a case between the Guptas and four South African banks.

As part of his application he attached details of 72 “suspicious” transactions carried out by companies owned by the Guptas totalling €446 million, and by extension made public aspects of that case that the banks could not due to client confidentiality agreements.

This has heaped more pressure on the Guptas as they wait to hear whether the public protector’s report will be made public.

Combined opposition

Furthermore, Gordhan’s predicament had given the ANC’s anti-Zuma members a credible person within the former liberation movement on which to anchor their combined opposition to the high levels of corruption undermining the ruling party.

Opposition parties, civil society groups and the ANC’s anti-Zuma faction decided to use the Gordhan court case as a staging point to launch a campaign to defend the country from those in government whom they believe are intent on looting the state.

If all this were not enough, the African National Congress leader also faces unprecedented opposition to his presidency from a faction within the ruling party. He is two court rulings away from having 783 corruption charges reinstated against him, and the ongoing violent student fee protests are portraying him as a president who is unable to lead.

But are we really in an endgame situation for Zuma?

The Institute of Race Relation’s political researcher, Gabriela Mackey, said that until the high court rules on whether to publish the public protector’s report or not, it is very difficult to say if Zuma is facing an endgame situation.

“But if it is [published], and Zuma is directly implicated in state capture involving the Guptas, criminal charges would likely follow; even if he is not implicated but some of his ministers are, then his lack of awareness about that reveals gross negligence on his part,” she said.

“Zuma’s goal is to stay in power until the ANC’s 2017 elective conference when he can try to install a proxy leader who will protect his interests. But he is losing control, and as a result damaging the ANC,” Mackey concluded.

Make-or-break

University of Cape Town professor at the department of public law, Richard Calland, also believes that Zuma’s latest legal woes have pushed him into a make-or-break period, but that it could be some time before we know which way it falls.

“These court cases could be seminal, especially if the state capture report is release and it has evidence about Zuma and others. Then the type of support Zuma and Gordhan get from the ANC in the weeks ahead will have a big role to play in shaping both men’s futures,” he said.

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