By Charlie Kimber
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Jacob Zuma’s jailing shows up South African government’s failures after end of apartheid

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Issue 2762
Former South African president Jacob Zuma
Former South African president Jacob Zuma (Pic: GovernmentZA/Flickr)

Forty minutes before midnight on Wednesday, Jacob Zuma’s motorcade sped out of his mansion to hand himself into custody. It is the latest step downwards for the former South African president.

Judges jailed Zuma for 15 months last week for his failure to show up to an inquiry into “state capture”—corrupt dealings between business and the government.

He used legal manoeuvres to postpone his arrest. But he eventually accepted the inevitable.

Zuma had numerous links with the superrich Gupta family. A string of witnesses say the Guptas, who have now fled South Africa, had influence over lucrative state contracts and appointments.

The corruption led to business and political rivals shot down in a furious scramble for wealth and power.

In a separate legal matter, Zuma pleaded not guilty last month in a corruption trial involving a £3 billion arms deal from the 1990s.

He was acquitted of raping a family friend in 2006.

Zuma maintains that his age, “health condition” and the Covid-19 pandemic would translate into a “death sentence” should he be imprisoned.

And he has denounced his jailing as a similar move to the days of the racist apartheid system.

Ronnie Kasrils, former freedom fighter and African National Congress (ANC) cabinet minister, says the comparison is outrageous. He told Socialist Worker, “There is nothing his case has in common with apartheid-era punishment.

“It’s utter nonsense. The jailing is a victory for democracy. His arch supporters are as fraudulent as he is.

Life in South Africa after a decade of Zuma—interview with Ronnie Kasrils
Life in South Africa after a decade of Zuma—interview with Ronnie Kasrils
  Read More

“I refer to the ANC faction that has been part of all the rotten corruption associated with state capture—selling the country to the devil.

“Some of the faction will continue to roar like empty vessels. but their power has been short-lived and they have in my view never had the mass support they have laid claim to.”

Zuma was elected president in 2009 having cultivated a “people’s leader” image. This was in contrast to his predecessor Thabo Mbeki, who had delivered free market reforms and denied the ravages of Aids.

But Zuma kept to the same pro-corporate road—and expected a fat payoff in return.

His caring image was soon punctured by multiple corruption claims and the reality that most black South Africans still faced low wages or unemployment—and poverty.

Then came a scandal surrounding the upgrading of his homestead in the rural area of Nkandla.

Zuma used state funds to build a palatial residence complete with cattle enclosure, amphitheatre, swimming pool and visitor centre.

“He is eating when we are hungry,” one protester outside the buildings said, capturing the public anger over the corruption.


Zuma was forced to resign as president in 2018. It took a huge struggle and he went as the parliament was set to debate a motion of no confidence in him.

His supporters have battled away inside the governing ANC, but their power has gradually ebbed away.

An ANC national executive meeting last week stated, “The interests of an individual cannot take precedence over or jeopardise the interests of our democracy or of the nation.”

The statement did not mention Zuma by name, but it was clear who was being referred to.

Zuma’s journey from liberation hero to a cell reflects much wider processes and the weakness of the ANC’s politics.

The end of apartheid in 1994 was a huge victory. But economic power in South Africa remained firmly in the hands of multinationals, white bosses and a thin layer of very rich black people.

Some leading ANC members, such as present president Cyril Ramaphosa, made huge fortunes in private business. Others, excluded from the highest ranks of the corporations, used the state to fund their luxury lives.

Zuma’s thefts never bothered big business. It was only when he started to destabilise the economy that they suddenly discovered he was a plunderer on an extraordinary scale.

Jailing Zuma will make no difference unless there is far more fundamental change.

Irvin Jim, the general secretary of the Numsa metalworkers’ union, has rightly pointed out that some of Zuma’s critics are themselves quite prepared to ram through privatisation.

He denounced “right wing holy of holies who sleep with white monopoly capital and are taken care of by sitting on boards of companies”.

“They do get under my skin when they go on about defending the rule of law,” he said.

Ronnie said, “In the final analysis we are witness to the lack of the alternative socialist system we strive for.

“South Africa is by no means unique in this mess.

“How I bemoan the opportunities we lost back in the early 1990s to create a credible political and economic system.” 

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