Former president Jacob Zuma claims he has not been involved in corruption but was merely following ANC policy in support of black business. That may be a tenuous legal argument but it is politically savvy.
The subtext is that if he goes on trial, black economic empowerment (BEE) will be in the dock. This misinterpretation may gain traction.
While the justice system may weigh up whether Zuma intended to commit any crime in his dealings with former financial adviser Schabir Shaik, the court of public opinion is another matter.
Smuts Ngonyama’s decade-old statement, “I didn’t join the struggle to become poor”, still resonates. Given an ever-present sense of entitlement and the immense wealth acquired by many ANC colleagues, Zuma may well have believed he was doing nothing wrong, even if he was mistaken.
The DA, which deserves credit for the reinstatement of charges against Zuma, has long maintained that the ANC version of BEE is corrupt. It’s black elite empowerment rather than black economic empowerment.
Indeed, the ANC’s version of BEE favours elites. Even BBBEE, which is supposedly broad-based black economic empowerment, has been perverted to serve relatively few.
Let’s not waste time quibbling. BEE in some form is necessary. The core problem is corruption, deeply ingrained in the ANC. Since Zuma’s removal from office, we are witnessing a partial unravelling of his corrupt networks. But this task cannot really be completed without major convulsions within the party.
Where will it stop?
There have been fewer than a handful of corruption convictions of high-profile political figures, among them Tony Yengeni, Shaik, Jackie Selebi and John Block. Not nearly enough to send the right message.
In fact, MPs found guilty in the Travelgate scandal were mostly re-elected and rewarded with promotions. When Yengeni entered Pollsmoor prison in 2006, he was carried shoulder-high by cheering ANC leaders. He wore his conviction like a badge of honour.
In the broader picture, Yengeni seemed a petty criminal on the fringes of the arms deal. He had failed to declare a discount he received on a Mercedes while he was head of parliament’s defence committee.
The big fish got away. The R4.2 million total in Zuma’s case is piffling compared with what others took. Never mind the billions of rands looted later during state Gupture. Will we ever see a great reckoning for all that was stolen by a new cast of crooks, long after Shaik faked his way into medical parole?
Right now, there are still corruption clouds over members of the ANC top six and President Cyril Ramaphosa’s Cabinet. Corruption has become embedded in the ANC’s DNA.
If Zuma’s case does eventually get to court, it will be fascinating to watch his lawyers draw parallels between his dealings and those of BEE beneficiaries who are deemed above board.