South Africa’s ANC faces dilemma over former president Zuma

Ex-president refuses to abide by court ruling obliging him to answer questions at inquiry

Former South Africa president Jacob Zuma's decision to defy a court order to testify at an inquiry investigating his involvement in public sector corruption has left the country on the brink of a political crisis that could badly damage the ruling African National Congress (ANC).

The issue is to be addressed by the ANC at a meeting of its national executive committee on Saturday.

Zuma has refused to abide by a constitutional court ruling compelling him to answer questions at the commission of inquiry into state capture, corruption in a statement this month that he was prepared to go to jail as a consequence.

“I do not fear being arrested. I do not fear being convicted, nor do I fear being incarcerated . . . [the inquiry] can expect no further co-operation from me,” said Zuma after the country’s highest court ruled on January 28th that he should testify.


The inquiry has since warned Zuma that he will face serious consequences if he fails to take to the witness stand on February 15th, the day of his next scheduled appearance. The former president could face a six-month prison sentence, a fine, or both for refusing to answer the inquiry’s latest summons.

Zuma's stance has also rocked the ANC, heightening the factional battles that have plagued the ruling party since current South African president, Cyril Ramaphosa, won its leadership race in December 2017.

Pervasive corruption

The ANC’s then deputy president narrowly beat Zuma’s preferred successor, his ex-wife Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, on the back of promises to take decisive action against pervasive corruption in the party and government.

Consequently, Zuma’s refusal to abide by the courts is being viewed increasingly by political analysts and the public as a test of whether Ramaphosa can keep his election promises and protect the laws governing South Africa’s post-apartheid democracy.

The ANC's Eastern Cape provincial structure has called for Zuma's suspension from the former liberation movement for refusing to appear at the inquiry, while its KwaZulu-Natal leaders and military veterans' wing have rallied to his defence, claiming the court's ruling infringes on the former president's rights.

ANC secretary general Ace Magashule also defended Zuma publicly last week, calling on his party critics to "leave him alone".

Political observers believe if Zuma follows through on his threat to snub the inquiry, he may well be expelled from the ANC, a development that could lead to a damaging split in the movement given the tensions that exist.

On Friday of last week, in an attempt to calm tensions before the ANC’s top decision-making body meets this weekend, Ramaphosa called on his predecessor to reflect on his position. “There are issues he must give consideration to in his own mind, in his own time,” said Ramaphosa. “Let us give former president Zuma time to think about this.”

Zuma (78) has been invited to attend virtually Saturday's national executive committee meeting where his defiance of the constitutional court will be discussed, according to party officials. The former president's relationship with the Johannesburg-based corruption inquiry reached breaking point last November after he failed in an attempt to get its presiding judge, Raymond Zondo, to recuse himself on the grounds he was biased against the former president.

When Zuma subsequently absconded from the inquiry, the judges asked the constitutional court to compel the former president to obey its summons to appear in the witness stand.

Right to silence

Zuma, who was removed from South Africa’s presidency by the ANC in 2018 over allegations of graft, faces numerous corruption-related questions linked to evidence contained in at least 36 affidavits submitted to the inquiry.

The former president has been accused of crimes ranging from allowing members of the controversial Gupta business family to influence senior government appointments and lucrative state contracts, to establishing a parallel spy network at the state security agency to undermine investigations into his alleged corrupt activities.

Zuma’s lawyers have already argued at the inquiry that under the law their client has a right to silence.

However, the constitutional court found that in the circumstances Zuma did not enjoy such a privilege, saying it was “available to arrested and accused persons and not to witnesses”.

Institute for Security Studies political analyst Gareth Newham said he believed Zuma was refusing to attend the inquiry in the hope the ANC would "protect him at all costs to ensure party unity".

“This is a key moment for South Africa and the ANC. If the party can’t deal with Zuma and other senior members accused of corruption at this juncture, it will suffer badly at the next election,” he said.