By Rafiq Raji, PhD
A court ruled in mid-October that earlier dropped corruption charges against South African president, Jacob Zuma, in relation to an arms deal almost twenty years ago, could be reinstated. It did not order that they should, though, leaving that to the discretion of the prosecution authorities. Considering how weighty and numerous the charges are, it would be quite bizarre if President Zuma is not subsequently charged to face trial. That would be in an ideal world, however. Only a year ago, a lower court decided that the same charges be reinstated; which Mr Zuma then challenged in the court that recently ruled against him. In some climes, Mr Zuma would have long honourably or dishonourably resigned. After this latest setback, calls have for the umpteenth time been made for him to leave office. It would be out of character for Mr Zuma to yield to those calls, though. There have been at least twelve attempts in court by the opposition Democratic Alliance (DA) party to get the same charges reinstated. After this latest rare defeat for the embattled South African president, the DA has wasted no time in piling on the pressure. If history is a guide, what is more likely is that Mr Zuma would buy as much as time as possible, while he negotiates a soft landing with whoever replaces him as ruling African National Congress (ANC) president in December.
Until the charges were first dropped against Mr Zuma in 2009, after evidence of political interference was found, they represented a major obstacle to his lifelong dream of ruling his country. Having secured the ANC presidency in defiance of the incumbent, Thabo Mbeki, who sacked him as deputy president only four years earlier, the charges of fraud and corruption did not seem to have much utility any longer. But now, 8 years into his 10-year two-term presidency, a court has ruled that “the reasons for discontinuing the prosecution [back then]…do not bear scrutiny”. But would state prosecutor Shaun Abrahams, who is well known for his deference to Mr Zuma, now proceed to charge him? Especially as the DA has given him a 10-day ultimatum? This remains to be seen. In the past, however, Mr Abrahams had been more than willing to do Mr Zuma’s bidding: he brought frivolous charges against former finance minister Pravin Gordhan in 2016, who was feuding with Mr Zuma at the time. Should Mr Abrahams prove to be ballsy, however, Mr Zuma would no doubt stall any potential prosecution for as long as possible. He would also likely be seeking some sort of furtive amnesty deal from any of his potential successors; who except deputy president Cyril Ramaphosa are believed to be mostly his proxies. Incidentally, even those lackeys of his might desire that he leaves the scene after the elective ANC conference in December. Thus, they may use his potential prosecution as leverage. So, the probability that Mr Zuma might leave office in January at the latest is quite high. Even so, it would be short-sighted to think he could not pull some rabbit out of a hat. And if he were perturbed by the unfavourable court judgement, he did not show it: on the day of the verdict, Mr Zuma jetted out to Owerri, a city in southeastern Nigeria to receive a chieftancy title.
More than legal costs
It is believed Mr Zuma’s numerous legal battles have cost taxpayers about R30 million. The broader costs to the economy have been much much more. I recall a conversation with a senior market participant some months ago about how investors might decide to move their money elsewhere should a Zuma lackey succeed to the ANC presidency in December. And if you think about it, why wouldn’t they? They see a president who despite overwhelming evidence of malfeasance against him remains securely in office, a central bank under attack, and a once independent finance ministry now under Mr Zuma’s overbearing influence. But above everything else, it is the political uncertainty on the back of Mr Zuma’s troubles that has been most devastating. A central bank official recently acknowledged the risk of further credit rating downgrades due to the associated policy uncertainty. State-owned South African Airways is a good example of how Mr Zuma’s influence is proving to be costly. The national carrier, which the treasury is perennially bailing out, may have been put in better shape had a harder stance been successfully taken earlier by treasury. With a close associate of Mr Zuma at the helm of the airline, despite repeated calls for her ouster, good money continues to be put to waste instead. To provide a sense of the scale, it was recently suggested Emirati airline, Emirates, which estimated its brand value to be worth US$7.7 billion in 2016, could have easily been acquired with the funds used to bail out the South African national carrier thus far. Little wonder, there is suggestion that should Mr Zuma leave, there could be an incremental pickup in output.
Also published in my BusinessDay Nigeria column (Tuesdays). See link viz. http://www.businessdayonline.com/next-zuma-fails-shake-off-corruption-charges/