How South Africa’s former president Jacob Zuma is taking his legal battle to the streets

Outside the court, Zuma led the 2,000-strong crowd in singing a famous Zulu song that talks of betrayal by one’s comrades. 

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Jacob Zuma was never going to accept defeat quietly. Removed from his presidency in South Africa by the African National Congress in February, he is now facing charges of corruption. These allegations date back to November 1998, when his country’s cabinet approved an arms deal worth $2.5bn. Zuma, at the time a provincial minister, met with his personal financial adviser, Schabir Shaik, and an official from French arms dealer Thomson-CSF

Shaik was jailed in June 2005 for fraud and corruption. Zuma, the man he was found guilty of bribing, never went to court, after the acting chief prosecutor found that charges against him were politically motivated. In October last year, the prosecutor’s ruling was overturned by the Supreme Court of Appeal, which decided that Zuma was indeed liable for prosecution. Last week, with a representative of the French arms company sitting beside him, the former president finally appeared in the Durban High Court for a preliminary hearing on 12 counts of fraud, two of corruption, one of racketeering and one of money laundering. He maintains that he is innocent and the charges are politically motivated.

The case could take up to two years to hear. Zuma’s legal team is adept at what is termed the “Stalingrad” defence: fighting every inch of the way. In the meantime, the battle has moved to the streets.

As the court was convening, most of the 600-strong bus fleet was commandeered to bring his supporters into Durban. So many were diverted from their usual routes that thousands of commuters were left stranded. The director of the bus company is Zuma’s nephew.

Outside the court, around two thousand people came to support the former president. With the hearing over, Zuma, dressed in a smart grey suit, emerged to address the crowd. “I have never seen it before where someone is charged with a crime, those charges are dropped and then 13 years later those same charges are re-instated. This is a just a political conspiracy”, he said in Zulu.

The African National Congress had issued a ruling that no-one should wear the party’s regalia. Bheki Cele, Minister of Police and a member of the party’s National Executive, said: “If you commit crimes you must face the charges without calling the ANC to defend you as if when you were stealing you were doing it for the ANC, while you were stealing for yourself and your children.” Cele might as well have saved his breath. The crowd was a sea of black, gold and green.

Zuma led the crowd in singing “SengimaNxebaNxeba”, a famous Zulu song associated with regiments, which talks of betrayal by one’s comrades. Its lyrics can be loosely translated as “I am being hurt, stepped on and roughed up by the people I grew up with”.

There were few who misunderstood whom this was aimed at. According to a news report, members of the ANC’s military veterans association chanted: “Down with Cyril Ramaphosa, down,” in reference to Zuma’s political successor, to which the crowd responded with cheers. The speaker, who was not named, boasted that although he was not educated he was trained to use guns. He said he rejected the directive of the ANC’s National Executive Committee, accusing them of serving the interests of mine-owners, the “Ruperts and Oppenheimers”. The defiance of the Ramaphosa leadership, and the splits in the ANC, were underlined by the presence of several NEC members at the court hearing.

According to the South African Sunday Times, Zuma is planning to form a new political party if attempts to remove Ramaphosa fail. A range of fringe groups – including the Black First Land First movement – are said to have already formed a party with Zuma’s blessing – the African Transformation Congress. 

Zuma has the backing of some churches. A letter addressed to the ANC was read out at a service, informing of the decision to form the new party. Speculation is rife in Zuma’s home province – KwaZulu-Natal – that Zuma’s supporters are mobilising their supporters not to vote for the ANC during next year’s election. ANC national working committee member and former KwaZulu-Natal chairman Senzo Mchunu said the ruling party was aware of the plan. “We’re aware...for now we’re calling it a rumour,” he said

Zuma was accused by the South African Communist Party of being a tribalist earlier this year. Some commentators believe that if the court case goes against him, Zuma could take matters further.

“What will be next?” asked Vanessa Burger, a human rights activist, in the Daily Maverick. “Will Zuma and his thugs declare KwaZulu-Natal a sovereign Zulu state, and secede from the rest of South Africa? He has sounded the war drums often enough. In other countries, what Zuma has done to our nation would be termed treason. Is it not time we called the monster by its name and added this to the charges against him?”

Martin Plaut is a fellow at the Institute of Commonwealth Studies, University of London. His most recent book is a biography of Robert Mugabe with Sue Onslow.