YAOUNDÉ, Cameroon – Former South African President Jacob Zuma must be accountable for his actions, according to the bishops of the country.
Zuma appeared briefly in a courtroom in Durban on April 6 to face corruption charges less than two months after his resignation.
The former leader faces sixteen charges of fraud, racketeering and money laundering related to a 1990’s arms deal, when he was deputy president.
The case fueled public anger against corruption in the country, and Zuma was forced to resign in February after being abandoned by the ruling African National Congress party.
“One of the premises of a democracy and the rule of law is that no one is above the law and everyone is accountable for their actions,” said Father Peter-John Pearson, director of the Southern African Catholic Bishops’ Conference Parliamentary Liaison Office.
“So even though there is a tradition of explicitly or implicitly covering up for the wrongdoings of people with political or corporate clout, the willingness to take former President Zuma to court is an important public step against an encroaching culture of impunity,” he told Crux.
At the hearing, the judge said Zuma was free “on warning” and must return to court on June 8. He could face several years in prison. Zuma has repeatedly denied any wrongdoing.
“Mr. Zuma has always claimed to be innocent and indeed the constitution of our country states that each citizen has the constitutional right to be innocent until proven guilty,” said Kimberly Bishop Abel Gabuza, who serves as the chair of the bishops’ conference justice and peace commission.
“Mr. Zuma has stated in the past that he wishes to have his day in court. Now the ball is in his court to present himself in court in order to prove his innocence. He has to do this for the sake of his own integrity and for his family. Indeed, let him appear in court and if found not guilty he will go down as one who served his country with distinction,” the bishop told Crux.
Gabuza said if Zuma is found guilty however, it “will be the final nail in the coffin” regarding the rumors about his acts of corruption.
“He is alleged to have had so much dealing with corrupt individuals with the intention of enriching himself and his cronies. The allegations will have to be proved that they are false,” he told Crux.
The bishop said Zuma’s court appearance is an example in accountability for Africa as a whole, where corrupt leaders had frequently escaped justice.
“The acts of corruption by various leaders in Africa who escape with impunity should come to an end,” Gabuza said.
He said there were many African leaders who “treat the treasury and the resources of their respective countries as their personal possessions,” and as they do that, basic services like healthcare and infrastructure development are neglected.
“Leaders should be held accountable and never escape being brought to book so that they can account for the large monies in their personal accounts,” the bishop said.
He praised new President Cyril Ramophosa – who had been a longtime ally of Zuma – for “making the right noises and saying the right things about corruption.”
“He has appealed to citizens to work together and develop the country. He has called for corrupt individuals in both the civil service and corporate world to be named and shamed for the acts of corruption. He has reminded that corruption does not contribute to the growth of our country,” Gabuza said.
Pearson added that since coming to power, Ramaphosa fired warning shots when he sacked ten members of Zuma’s cabinet who were alleged to have been either complicit in corrupt activities or weak in tackling corruption.
“He has taken the issues of boards of public enterprises and tender processes in hand; he has suspended the South African Revenue Services boss. It is also significant that from the outset he has indicated that there would be no immunity for those charged with corruption irrespective of their status,” the priest said.
“The case of former President Zuma seems to be proof of the seriousness with which President Ramaphosa is taking his responsibility. It is generally and widely acknowledged that he has gotten off to a good start and there are many signs that he has the political will to take this project forward,” he added.
Pearson said such decisive actions have led to confidence from virtually every quarter that he is “moving in the right direction.”
“Many see him in the mold of President Mandela,” he told Crux.
Nelson Mandela, the Nobel Peace Prize-winning anti-apartheid activist, served as president of South Africa from 1994 to 1999, after the country’s first multi-racial elections.
Corruption in South Africa was “cancerous” in the apartheid era, Pearson said, but it has been worse over the past decade.
“It is said that since 1994 South Africa lost [$59 billion] in corruption, about [$2.5 billion] a year, and roughly 20 percent of the country’s procurement budget,” he told Crux.
“Figures are never accurate because by its nature and operation there is always a hidden cost involved in corruption,” the priest continued. “It is certain however that every act of corruption is an act of theft from the poor! And a moment of destabilization of democracy.”
Pearson said any effective fight against corruption must be built on the foundation of strong institutions, and Zuma’s court appearance demonstrates that in South Africa, “the institutions of democracy and civil society remains strong.”
“Civil society which did not allow this issue to off the boil or drop from the radar screen and kept up the pressure for it to happen, is also to be commended. Across the world – but certainly on our continent – we need to ensure that our democratic institutions are not captured by powerful interests; that we invest in ensuring that they remain robust and that we take participation in the political culture, very seriously,” Pearson concluded.
Gabuza noted, however, that it will certainly take time “for some individuals to unlearn the many acts of corruption that have become part of their way of doing things, almost a culture.” But the bishop insisted that acts of corruption must still be severely punished.