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'Hands off our president': Why Zuma's charges haven't nixed his support

South Africa's former president Jacob Zuma and crowds of his supporters were in Durban Friday for his brief court appearance. Many agree his trial is symbolic, but of what?

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Former South African president Jacob Zuma waves to supporters outside the high court in Durban, South Africa, June 8, 2018.

Rogan Ward/Reuters

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There wasn’t much to it. In a cramped courtroom Friday morning, former South African president Jacob Zuma sat in the dock and listened quietly as the teams of lawyers in front of him asked to postpone his corruption trial for six more weeks to finish preparing their cases.

The judge said yes. The court adjourned. And not 20 minutes after he had shuffled into the courtroom, Mr. Zuma was walking back out into the bright winter sunlight, a smile cracking across his creased, round face.

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For many South Africans, however, this simple moment was also a deeply symbolic one.

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But exactly what it symbolizes is far less clear cut.  

For some, watching their former president appear in court to answer to charges of corruption, money-laundering, and racketeering is proof positive that their young democracy is capable of holding its leaders responsible for their misdeeds. On a continent where impunity for the powerful and well-connected has often been the norm, they say Zuma’s trial will offer a stern warning to would-be crooked politicians of the future.

“This is holding a very powerful person to account in an environment where that hasn’t often happened before, and that means a lot,” says David Lewis, the executive director of the South African nongovernmental organization Corruption Watch.

But for others, the fact that Mr. Zuma has been put on trial is a symbol of just how broken that system has become. They say that instead of focusing on flushing out the insidious and grinding forms of corruption that many South Africans face on a daily basis – like having to bribe police officers and doctors, or watching public money for their roads, schools, and hospitals disappear into the pockets of local officials – the country’s political leadership is using the former president’s prosecution as a smokescreen.

“There are all kinds of corruption in this country that we need to deal with, but instead we’re spending all this money and energy pinning the label on one man,” says Bishop Timothy Bheki Ngcobo, the provincial secretary of the National Interfaith Council of South Africa, who helped organize a vigil of Zuma’s supporters in Durban the night before the court case. (The government has spent more than $1.8 million on his legal fees, according to South Africa’s justice ministry.) “Corruption is becoming a word you use when you want to destroy someone’s image – it’s said without proof or interrogation.”

'Does it matter if he stole that money?'

That image of Zuma – as an underdog being victimized by a scheming political elite – is one the former president himself has long cultivated, says Sithembile Mbete, a political science lecturer at the University of Pretoria.

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In fact, she says, it’s the very image that brought him to power in the first place.

In 2005, when Zuma was deputy president, his friend and business associate Schabir Shaik was convicted of funneling 4 million rand (more than a quarter million dollars by today’s exchange rate) from the French arm manufacturer Thales (formerly Thomson-CSF) to Zuma in exchange for facilitating a lucrative contract for the company to provide ships to the South African navy. The contract was part of a larger, scandal-ridden set of military purchases known collectively here as the “arms deal.”

Zuma was fired, and the country’s National Prosecuting Authority quickly moved to bring corruption charges against him as well.

But Zuma fought back, arguing the charges were politically motivated, a way for the then-president Thabo Mbeki and his allies to tarnish his name and destroy his career. Eventually, the charges were dropped, and soon after, Zuma became president.

“In a sense, it was these charges that helped bring Zuma to prominence and power,” Ms. Mbete says. “They made his reputation as a victim of the system.”

That reputation helped carry Zuma through nearly two terms of a presidency dogged by scandals and charges of economic mismanagement. But in February of this year, his party, the African National Congress, asked the president to step down, 14 months before the end of his term.

Many analysts believe the move was designed to help clean up the party’s image before general elections next year, which are expected to be the closest since the party first came to power 25 years ago. And reinstating the president’s corruption charges, both supporters and critics of Zuma say, was a way for the new administration of Cyril Ramaphosa to make a point about how serious it was about rooting out graft in government.

Both sides caught a glimpse of their version of Zuma Friday. In court, he appeared chastised and subdued, nodding politely as the judge addressed him sternly as “accused number 1.” But as soon as he stepped outside to greet the thousand or so supporters who had gathered in the road outside the courthouse, his mood flipped.  

“For many years, people have been saying, ‘Zuma is corrupt,’ but have they ever proved it?” he asked the crowd in Zulu, to loud cheers. Many in the audience wore t-shirts and carried posters reading “Hands off our president” and “Wenzeni uZuma” – What did Zuma do?”

Some were emphatic that Zuma was innocent. But for others, that wasn’t the point.

“There’s been corruption in South Africa since before Jacob Zuma was president, since before he was even born – why do people think they’ll get rid of it just by getting rid of him?” says Nellie, a hairdresser and nail artist from Durban who asked that her full name not be used because she says she is distrustful of how media has portrayed “the people’s president” and his supporters.

“Does it matter if he stole that money? Everyone in power steals money,” says Khethiwe Zulu, who runs a small construction company. “What matters is that he also did good things for poor people in this country. What matters is that he cares about us.”