When news broke on Wednesday, July 7, 2021 that Jacob Zuma, the former president of South Africa, had turned himself in to serve a 15-month jail term, many Africans must have surely had their jaws drop in amazement. Such is not a normal occurrence in Africa. That a former president and well-respected apartheid leader would be cuffed and left behind bars was not something many Africans would dare to imagine. But in South Africa, it happened, and we all have lessons to learn.
Jacob Zuma, the former freedom fighter and former head of Umkhonto we Sizwe (the armed wing of the African National Congress), is being jailed for contempt of court. He was sentenced on June 29 for defying an instruction to give evidence at an inquiry into corruption during his time in power. The ruling was, in effect, an affirmation of the independence and integrity of a judicial system that has consistently stood for justice. More importantly, it shines a ray of hope that Africans can build resilient institutions loyal to the constitution and not politicians.
In Nigeria, court orders (and summons) are often disobeyed, without consequences, by those who claim to be powerful and connected – a tragedy that has eroded confidence in our justice system. Since democracies operate on the principle that no one is above the law, then our judges must find the courage to hold in contempt those who flagrantly desecrate our temple of justice by disobeying court rulings.
Before Jacob Zuma’s sentencing, his party, the ANC, had relieved him of his leadership position due to various corrupt practices. It must have been a challenging, yet painful decision by the ANC to remove a man who went to jail for fighting for the very democratic rights they were now exercising. But for many of the members of the ANC, it was country before party. And so, on February 14, 2018, he was forced out of office by members of his party after several corruption scandals.
One would think that choosing a country (or the constitution) over party affiliation would be straightforward, except that most African countries have built a patronage system where loyalty is often to the powerful and not the constitution. For instance, it is unthinkable that a Nigerian president will be in breach of the constitution and his party, the All Progressives Congress will muster the courage to hold him to account.
Even those with the constitutional authority and obligation to hold the president to account are too afraid or too ‘loyal’ to do their jobs. Until more African countries produce a critical mass of leaders who are more loyal to the constitution than their relationships and party affiliations, very little progress would be achieved.
Most importantly, South Africans have demonstrated a low tolerance for ‘glaring’ corruption. It matters less who has committed the crime but more about what crime was committed. Little wonder in 2016, Jacob Zuma was forced to repay the money he used to upgrade his private home in Nkandla after the public had expressed outrage at his abuse of office. He is also currently facing charges involving money laundering, corruption, fraud, and racketeering levelled against him by the National Prosecuting Authority.
In Nigeria, for instance, despite mind-boggling revelations of corrupt practices by former serving ministers and aides, not even the current president who got elected into office on an anti-corruption message has found the spine to prosecute the former president. If we fail to hold our past leaders to account for their time spent in office, we will continue to signal to future leaders that it is alright to rule with impunity. This lack of accountability has now instigated a subtle rebellion where several non-state actors are emerging across the country, delegitimizing the state.
The lessons are clear for many to follow: democracies deliver better when strong institutions are built, when the constitution is supreme and inspires loyalty from all citizens and when the people are willing to hold their leaders accountable when they abuse their oath of office.