South Africa: Former president Zuma found guilty of contempt of court

Former South Africa President Jacob Zuma (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

On 29 June the South African Constitutional Court found former-president Jacob Zuma guilty of contempt of court. He has been sentenced to fifteen months in prison without the possibility of appeal. Less than 48-hours later, on 1 July, the ConCourt cleared President Ramaphosa of any wrongdoing in relation to a R500,000 (US $35,000) donation to his campaign war-chest in the 2017 race to win the ANC presidency from the notoriously corrupt Bosasa company.

Zuma’s presidency was a disaster for the working class. Millions of working class people will have watched the judgment against him and thought: it serves him right! Wedded to capitalist policies his government was completely incapable of addressing unemployment, poverty or inequality. All of these became worse under Zuma. But while the working class and poor were suffering, Zuma and his clique spent their time looting public funds, to enjoy lives of luxury. The latest price tag for the years of so-called “state capture” is a staggering R57 billion (US $4 billion). This money should have been spent on jobs, wages, housing, education, health and service delivery.

The sabre-rattling by Zuma’s son, Edward Zuma, saying that before they jail his father they will have to “kill him first” and MK Military Veterans Association spokesperson Carl Niehaus, calling for “resistance” by all “peace loving South Africans”, will likely just end in humiliating climb downs.

The legal road to Zuma’s imprisonment was opened-up by his refusal at the end of last year to appear before the Zondo Commission. Ironically, this Commission was set-up towards the end of Zuma’s presidency (2009-2018) following the #GuptaLeaks which exposed vast and widespread corruption across government, directly implicating Zuma and his allies. The Zondo Commission will not finish its hearings until September. This jail-term is just a taster of what lies ahead for Zuma. In the meantime Zuma’s trial for corruption during his time as deputy-president (1999-2005) is set to begin in the next months.

In February, the ConCourt issued an order compelling Zuma to appear before the Zondo Commission from which he had walked out. He not only refused the order, placing himself in direct confrontation with the so-called “highest court in the land”, but launched a propaganda campaign against the Zondo Commission, the ConCourt, and the entire judiciary. Zuma claimed that he was being victimised and that both the Commission and Court had been “politicised” in an extension of the faction struggle in the ANC.

High stakes

Ultimately, Zuma’s accusations and conduct challenged the entire post-apartheid political order. The agreement reached at Convention for a Democratic South Africa (Codesa), which ended the racist apartheid segregation system and led to the first democratic elections in 1994, struck a delicate balance for the future evolution of the ruling class. In exchange for the defence of capitalism and the wealth and property of the up-to-then-white capitalist class, political power and control of the state would be handed to the black elite leading the ANC. The capitalist class would also be expected to make space for the development of black capitalists, or, in the words of Nelson Mandela, a “prosperous non-European bourgeoisie”. In exchange, the ANC would protect capitalism from the working class whose expectations for a rapid improvement in living standards was and is, incompatible with the continuation of the capitalist profit-system. Accordingly, the Cosatu trade union federation, which was decisive in the struggle to end apartheid, was locked-up in the Tripartite Alliance, its unconditional support for the ANC justified by the SA Communist Party’s “two-stage” theory of revolution.

But the Codesa agreement has come under growing strain, especially since the 2009 world economic crisis. This opened a decade of economic stagnation in South Africa. A section of the aspirant black elite, growing increasingly frustrated with the limitations this placed on their entry into the ruling class and the wealth they could accumulate, coalesced around the so-called “state capture project” during Zuma’s presidency, and now the so-called “Radical Economic Transformation” faction. They are pushing for a more decisive transfer of wealth from so-called white monopoly capital to themselves. The Marxist Workers Party (MWP, the CWI in South Africa) has analysed the objective basis of the factional struggles within the ruling class extensively, most recently in our Reply to City Press and in Podcast #3.

The judgement of the ConCourt was absolutely scathing about Zuma’s conduct and ripped to shreds the idea that he is a victim. Ultimately, the ConCourt judgement is a defence of the capitalist post-1994 political and economic order enshrined in the Constitution. This document assumes a capitalist economy in South Africa and defends its legal foundations in the defence of private property in the commanding heights of the economy.

For the decisive sections of the ruling class, the Codesa agreement has not yet exhausted its potential. Zuma got nowhere in 2018 when he tested-out the willingness of the military to support his remaining in office after the ANC’s decision to remove him. The ConCourt judgement is a warning to the different factions of the ruling class not to over-reach themselves as Zuma and the RET faction did. In ruling that Zuma be jailed they have sent a clear message: even the “head of state” is not above the collective needs of the ruling class. In that sense, the judicial-wing of the capitalist state has substituted itself as the ruling class’s “executive committee” given the paralysis of its executive- and legislative-wings as a result of the factional divisions in the ANC.

Capitalist democracy

The Zuma judgement has sent the liberal middle class in the media, the NGOs and so-called “civil society”, into fits of euphoria. It is being heralded as a triumph for the “rule of law”, an end to the “age of impunity” and a watershed in the development of “our democracy”. Some are so triumphant that they are proclaiming the superiority of SA democracy and the SA constitution over the “old” Western democracies.

Yet the ConCourt’s class character has been re-affirmed in the judgment in favour of Ramaphosa on the matter of the Bosasa donation. Although never criminally charged, Ramaphosa was being investigated on a range of issues relating to this donation, critically, whether he had wilfully misled parliament. Accusations of money laundering and personal gain, whilst plausible up to a point, were consciously trumped-up by Zuma allies still occupying prominent positions within the state prosecution service. This back-fired spectacularly.

Court applications for the full disclosure of the financial records of Ramaphosa’s 2017 campaign were dismissed in the judgement. The ConCourt reaffirmed Ramaphosa’s right to so-called “privacy” over the identity of his donors and the records will remain sealed. Capital’s stranglehold on democracy has been legally upheld! The ANC itself has maintained a deafening silence over revelations that raising funds for internal campaigns was prohibited until 2012 when the relevant clause disappeared from the ANC’s constitution without the matter going before the National Conference.

The working class has its own experience of SA’s capitalist democracy. The 2012 mineworkers’ strikes were answered with automatic gunfire in the Marikana massacre that killed 34 strikers. Over 460,000 people have been arrested in the past twelve months for lockdown violations. The courts, with the ConCourt as the final arbiter, are responsible for upholding the anti-strike amendments introduced into the Labour Relations Act in 2015. These allow strikes to be ruled illegal on the grounds that they are “economically damaging”.

The MWP has drawn attention to recent anti-working class court rulings (see Podcast #5 and the latest issue of our Izwi Labasebenzi magazine). Last year the Labour Appeal Court upheld the ANC government’s cancellation of an agreed public sector pay increase. They ruled that the original wage agreement was unconstitutional, in effect, because it contradicted the over-arching government policy of spending cuts and austerity. Before that, the dismissal of over 700 workers at Aveng Steel was upheld by no less than the Constitutional Court itself on the grounds of the employers “declining profits”.

These judgements, the Zuma ruling, and clearing Ramaphosa of any wrong-doing around the Bosasa donation, are all calculated to bring some stability to SA capitalism on the terms of the capitalist class.

Anti-working class agenda

After a number of internal party victories and the aid of the courts, Ramaphosa clearly has the upper hand in the factional struggle within the ANC. The threat of a split has receded for now. However, this will do little to stop the electoral decline of the ANC. This is rooted in the economic impasse of SA capitalism to which the ruling class has no answers. It would also be a mistake to think that the ANC’s factionalism, and the threat of damaging splits which inevitably accompanies it, can ever be overcome. This too is rooted in capitalism’s crisis to which has now been added the economic ruin wrought by the Covid-19 pandemic. Even if the RET faction in its current form were to be decisively defeated it will re-emerge in new forms.

The working class has nothing to celebrate in the ascendency of the Ramaphosa faction. The so-called “reform agenda” he will pursue on behalf of the ruling party and the ruling class means massive cuts to public spending, attacks on pay and the privatisation of the state-owned enterprises. This is what the ConCourt rulings have opened the way for.

The working class must fiercely assert its independence from all the factions of the ruling class. There is no lesser devil; we face one class enemy. Marxists analyse the ruling class’s faction struggles in order to understand how to exploit their divisions, arming the working class to gain ground in the class struggle. For the working class, the Zuma judgement and all the drama around the ANC’s factions, just like the surging third wave of the pandemic, reaffirm again the need to build a socialist mass workers party to replace the ANC and the parties of capital with a workers’ government able to implement a socialist programme.


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July 2021