Monday, April 13, 2009

ZUMA GETS A LIFELINE TO REDEAM HIS IMAGE

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SUNDAY TIMES
JOHANNESBURG, SOUTH AFRICA
Sunday Times Editorial
Apr 12, 2009

The decision whether or not to abandon almost a decade of investigation and withdraw charges including fraud, corruption and money laundering against ANC president Jacob Zuma should not have been made by the National Prosecuting Authority.

Just as Zuma could not be declared guilty until the evidence against him had been tested in court, so too should he not have been reprieved on the basis of untested and possibly tainted evidence of political conspiracy.

The idea that the timing of Zuma’s charging was manipulated is not new. This newspaper warned about this immediately after charges were proffered against him in December 2007: “But a worrying aspect of this latest development — apart from the length of time it took to charge Zuma — is the NPA’s timing,” we said then. “Why would the NPA charge Zuma barely a week after he was elected president of the ANC? With a trial date set for August 2008, why has it become urgent to serve Zuma with papers now? Couldn’t the acting national director of public prosecutions have waited?”

Contrasting the acceleration of the Zuma prosecution with the stalling of the case against police Commissioner Jackie Selebi, we said in 2007: “This contradiction makes ordinary South Africans think that Mbeki is interested in seeing Zuma charged, on the one hand, while Selebi is protected, on the other. The lack of even-handedness in the handling of these two prominent cases adds fuel to the perception that there is a political conspiracy against Zuma. This perception will continue to persist in the minds of ordinary South Africans, and Mbeki will find it difficult to dispel them.”

But, with the charges laid — as they needed to be — a decision of such political weight and social magnitude as to withdraw them should have been subject to public interrogation and argument before a panel of judges and not made behind closed doors by an individual whose future almost certainly depended upon it.

The NPA’s acting director, Mokotedi Mpshe, said the transcripts of tapped telephone conversations with former Scorpions boss Leonard McCarthy appeared to show that Zuma’s prosecution was timed to Mbeki’s political advantage.

It is difficult this week to avoid the conclusion that Zuma’s reprieve was timed for his convenience and that of the ruling party just three weeks before the general election. Mpshe said he had acted under pressure of time, but did not explain the deadline. His tortured justification for accepting clandestine recordings of telephone conversations met a potentially precedent-setting legal question with a politically convenient answer, with no apparent reason for avoiding proper judicial scrutiny.

This newspaper accepts, however, that the deed is done. Though the evidence against him remains unchallenged, Zuma will be the next president of our republic.

He will assume the mantle of Nelson Mandela with suspicion stacked against him and the perception widely held that he can be bought. Venal friends, funders and defenders will be queueing from day one to receive the largesse they consider their due. Critics and avowed foes will be watching for the first sign of moral turpitude . Every act and omission will be analysed by one side for opportunity and by the other for evidence of an outrage.

Zuma’s task will be to demonstrate what the courts have not been allowed to prove — that he is an honest man. He has been given a lifeline to redeem his image. He must claim the moral authority to lead this nation out of the mire, and win its trust .

If the evidence Zuma presented to frustrate his prosecution is genuine, it shows again that institutions intended to protect the people were manipulated or put at risk to suit the agenda of one man, whose word had become the gospel of an isolated and arrogant government.

Zuma, and those he appoints to high office, must now repair that damage. They must pack the courts with paragons of legal wisdom and impartiality, people the executives of the police, prosecuting authority, public broadcaster and watchdog bodies with independent-minded experts and give parliament the freedom to put away its rubber stamp and reclaim its credibility.

Zuma has used populism and pressure to open his way to the presidency, but he takes on the job without the universal goodwill that carried Mandela into office or the economic prosperity that Mbeki enjoyed.

Zuma has been sold by his acolytes as a man of the people. Now he must lead for the people.

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