The best way to punish Jacob Zuma is ...
Let's imagine the scene many have been fantasising about for years
How should Jacob Zuma be punished?
I know I’m putting all kinds of carts before all sorts of horses. Zuma might not be found guilty of anything. He might not even go to trial. He might slide out of this as he’s slid out of so many tight spots before.
But let’s just imagine the scene many people have been fantasising about for years: the moment that a judge passes sentence on Jacob Gedleyihlekisa Zuma.
What should the judge say?
Social media is full of easy, vengeful answers to that question. Tar and feathers! The rack! Hang, draw and quarter him! Before Zuma was ousted from power, it was not uncommon to see people on social media demanding that “somebody” shoot him. Even the most moderate howls from this mob demand life sentences in dank dungeons.
These responses are medieval in their violence and crudeness. Part of the reason for this is that many people, despite having a car and a job and Facebook, have fundamentally medieval world views. Racism has certainly played a part. But I suspect the main trigger of that rage has been a feeling of powerlessness. Perhaps it was inevitable, as Zuma dismantled the justice system and made his contempt for the law increasingly clear, that citizens would feel the fear of living in a lawless society, and that fear would turn to unfocused fury.But that was then. Zuma is gone. And even if the current rhetoric around justice and prosecuting state capture is just noise, it is nonetheless a joyful noise for a citizenry that has lived for too long listening only to “Heh heh heh!” and the sound of cash-registers getting emptied. Cyril Ramaphosa’s administration has presented justice as a potential reality, which means it is time for us to align our vengeful, hyperbolic fantasies with the same reality, and to ask ourselves the question I started with: How should he be punished?
When I tried to answer that for myself, my immediate response was that Zuma should do time. But how much? I argued with myself for a second or two, bouncing around random figures cobbled together from LA Law and documentaries about the Mafia. It was pointless, and so I tried another tack: precedents. How long, I wondered, had other heads of state gone to prison for degrading their countries and actively harming their people?
And then I stopped, because at that point I was struck by something very obvious.The reason I couldn’t think of a precedent in South Africa was because there isn’t one.
No South African leader has done time for harming the people. Neither of the two men who presided over a crime against humanity and who lived into the new dispensation ever saw the inside of a prison cell. PW Botha, who actively waged war on black South Africans, died without a criminal record. FW de Klerk gives lectures on how to run this country. He has not spent a minute behind bars, not even a symbolic 11-minute incarceration representing the 11 years he served as a cabinet minister enforcing the aforesaid crime.
Injustice is a poisonous thread that coils through almost every aspect of our collective history as South Africans. If this country is to have any kind of future, justice must become a national project. Justice must be done and seen to be done: people must be punished for their misdeeds.
But is it just to send Zuma to prison for fraud when Botha and Magnus Malan oversaw mass murder and never served a day? Some might argue that those were the bad old days and that we need to set the bar higher now; that Botha and De Klerk needed to be pardoned in order for us to form this new, law-abiding democracy. But surely justice is a process that links the past to the present? If we try to start afresh every time, how does anyone get punished for their crimes and how do their victims ever get justice?I am not a legal expert. I also know that justice cannot be based on gut feel: that way lies the medieval mob. But it would strike me as very peculiar, and perhaps unjust, to jail Zuma when the perpetrators of apartheid literally got away with murder.
So how should Zuma be punished?
Perhaps, in the end, the punishment should fit the crime. It seems that Zuma did all of it just to get rich, so perhaps he should be made poor; his vast fortune forfeited and redistributed to the poor in whose face he spat.
Still, our history requires us to acknowledge its role in justice. Zuma fought to liberate this country. He went to prison for us, long ago, before he was hollowed out. So let’s give him his uMkhonto weSizwe service certificate, entitling him to housing benefits and a small pension. Let’s give him the freedom he went to prison to secure for us.
And then let’s turn our backs on him. Just like he did to us.