Some people’s conclusion for what has been happening in South Africa the past couple of days is both dire and apocalyptic.
For them, the image of mass looting is the final confirmation that the Rainbow Nation experiment—championed by Nelson Mandela—has finally come apart. For racists and some doubters, it is a confirmation that black people cannot govern a country as a rich as South Africa, let alone live in any civilised setting.
For others, the events are a culmination of many years of inequality. Finally, the hungry poor— most majority black and economically-marginalised—are eating the rich, to borrow a common colourful prediction about inequality’s endgame.
For the naïve, it is Jacob Zuma’s political grip, or more cynically, the absence of Cyril Ramaphosa’s, at display. That though, is political naivety and simplistic explanation on what is going on.
The reality is far more complex. It is about everything cited and not just one thing. Many factors are at play. And so are many forces.
You cannot rule out Zuma’s people plotting and instigating the insurrection. Already, police say they are probing the line of some masterminds behind the looting. But there are reasons it has escalated: the police were caught napping and, ultimately, just too many poor mouths saw the opportunity in the chaos and seized. South Africans, apparently, don’t waste a lot of these opportunities.
But there are lessons here. Some very enduring. And the first one is that of the first chicken for coming for roasting, is Zuma himself. Here, finally, is a man who has caused irreparable damage to an iconic liberation movement, a world class economy and vibrant democracy, through years of presiding over cronyism and corruption, getting punished for impunity.
He still has corruption charges to answer, but when Zuma attempted to raise the middle finger at lady justice, unlike when he was accused of rape and corruption in the past, he was punished for it. He deliberately treated the famously independent South African judiciary with contempt and paid for it with a considerably lengthy prison sentence that with his advanced age, amidst a raging pandemic, one agrees bodes ill for. But justice had to be served, regardless of who Zuma is. That, in itself, is a victory for South Africa’s democracy and rule of law.
Hopefully, it will embolden other courts on the continent. Maybe other courts will stop treating presidents, be it former or serving, with any kid-gloves.
Using Stalingrad strategy, some ex-presidents wade off serious corruption charges. Former President Bakili Muluzi’s case has become a legal albatross here at home where no one really can adequately explain why it’s taken so long and yet the Judiciary, embarrassingly, has allowed close to 15 years to pass before reaching any conclusion.
When such things happen rule of law is undermined. The corrupt are emboldened and the poor sold a raw deal.
So, Zuma’s fall also serves as a timely reminder for those in power today. When you abuse authority, there is always a day to answer for it. It’s called the day of reckoning or to borrow my boss’ favorite; the day of comeuppance.
Zuma thought he had it all figured out. He had an ex-wife to install as successor, the Guptas to oil any strategy and the ANC as his party and loyalty of his tribe. But when you mess up with the law, there is nobody who is too clever. Not all days.
And Ramaphosa should take some credit here. Despite the obvious threat from the Zuma loyalists from word go that they will not take his jailing hands down, despite the looting and damage to the economy witnessed, he has not tolerated any discussion about pardoning Zuma prematurely.
Ramaphosa has allowed his former boss to pay the price for his misdemeanor; staking his whole presidency over it—knowing he’s doing the right thing. Doing God’s wish, for the believers.
That is the leadership lesson for his Malawian counterpart Lazarus Chakwera. You cannot be nice to those who broke the law or against the interest of the nation, even if they include your predecessors and party financiers. Not even for the sake of national unity should thieves be rolled out the red carpet. Criminals belong to jail. That’s what Tonse Alliance promised during the campaign. That’s what it must deliver.