President Jacob Zuma would have been thrilled with Monday’s good old natter on the phone with President Donald Trump.
The two men, on the face of it very different, actually share a lot. Both are viscerally loathed by a significant proportion of the electorate. Both have to endure unprecedented levels of scorn and ridicule.
They also share an indifference bordering upon antipathy towards the constitutions of their countries. Trump has just trampled on the US constitution with an arbitrary ban on travellers from seven countries seemingly chosen at random.
But Zuma holds the edge. With the benefit of many years to hone his anti-judicial résumé, he can boast the distinction of having survived a ruling by the Constitutional Court of being in breach of his oath of office. And he will doubtless also survive last week’s unconstitutional deployment of soldiers to parliament.
There is, however, a significant difference between the two: the backdrop against which they experiment with extra-judicial shenanigans.
Americans have an almost religious reverence for a founding document that for more than two centuries has curbed executive overreach. While Trump may rail against a judiciary that is “biased” and less competent than “a bad high school student”, it is unthinkable that he won’t comply with its rulings.
In contrast, while South Africans have a palpable enthusiasm for our constitution, this does not extend to the government that supposedly is its guardian. The ANC, or more specifically many politicians in the Zuma administration, treat it with barely disguised contempt.
Theirs is a cynically instrumental approach. It’s to laud and enforce laws and judgments that benefit the Zuma administration and disadvantage its political opponents.
There have been scores of cases where public servants have ignored legal injunctions. This sometimes has been because of ignorance, but often because they knew they had the tacit backing of their ministers and ANC politicians.
In the past fortnight this has become a grave problem. The police have targeted Paul O’Sullivan – whistleblower, freelance investigator, and general thorn up the backside of the corrupt but politically well connected – in a sustained campaign of harassment and intimidation.
Last year, O’Sullivan was with much fanfare arrested at OR Tambo on an essentially minor passport-related charge. On the basis that the charges were “frivolous and vexatious” O’Sullivan got a court order forbidding the police or the National Prosecuting Authority from arresting him without a summons, or alternatively only after alerting him at least 48 hours beforehand.
In defiance of that order, a posse of at least 17 plainclothes police officers in eight vehicles descended upon him on Monday and threw him in jail. After an urgent application by his lawyers, the court ordered he be released immediately.
Similarly outrageous is the harassment of O’Sullivan’s legal representative. Sarah-Jane Trent was arrested and driven around for hours, to thwart any bail application. She spent the weekend in prison.
These tactics are eerily reminiscent of what the apartheid government used. No doubt Trump would approve, though.