Easy to overlook among the COVID-19 headlines is a positive development involving the prosecution of former President Jacob Zuma. It has the potential for reaffirming, perhaps reanimating, South African commitment to the rule of law and trust in government, which flagged considerably during Zuma’s tenure. For the past decade, Zuma has fought charges and indictments related to his alleged acceptance of bribes, employing every means available to obstruct the judicial process. His final appeals have been rejected by the constitutional court, South Africa's highest, or withdrawn.
Since the coming of "non-racial democracy," Zuma has been a leader in government, becoming deputy prime minister in 1999. Often involved in party infighting, he successfully engineered the resignation of then President Thabo Mbeki and his own election as president in 2009, in which position he served until his resignation in 2018. Throughout his government service, he has been dogged by criminal accusations, most notably rape (on which he was acquitted on a technicality) and accepting bribes as deputy president from a French company in conjunction with South African arms procurement. More generally, as president, he become the face of government corruption and "state capture." Nevertheless, he remains popular among the poor and his fellow Zulus, the largest ethnic group in the country, and continues to enjoy some support within the ANC.
Of course, there is a reason that COVID-19 is dominating the headlines in South Africa. The country has the largest number of reported cases of the virus on the African continent, with over 5,600, but it also has the most developed public health sector of the larger African countries and has instituted the continent's most extensive testing regime, with over 200,000 tests conducted. Hence the presence of the disease is more readily measured in South Africa than elsewhere where testing is less widespread. President Cyril Ramaphosa, leader of the ruling African National Congress, has so far received high marks from international public health experts for his strict application of the COVID-19 control orthodoxy: social distancing, sheltering in place, and, in effect, the shutdown economic activity. Further, if belatedly, the government has increased the social allowances paid by the government, which nearly all poor South Africans receive, to help cope with the economic consequences of the lockdown.
Though there are indications that the strategy is working, domestic criticism is mounting. There is the sense that many of Ramaphosa's regulations are excessive, such as his ban on the sale of tobacco and alcohol. The administration's public messaging has also been contradictory and confused. Most at issue, however, is the use of excessive force to enforce lockdown rules by the South African police. As of April 20, eight people have reportedly been killed as police and soldiers enforced the lockdown, and two hundred cases of police brutality have been recorded. Some of the actions have included the use of whips, rubber bullets, beatings, and the destruction of private property.
At least some government officials have been reassuringly contrite upon news of security service brutality. “We hang our heads in shame,” said Defense Minister Nosiviwe Mapisa-Nqakula. “We will not at any point defend what has happened.” He said that investigations were underway. But other officials, have appeared less than sympathetic. Early on, the police minister apparently explicitly encouraged police to “not be nice to suspects,” and President Ramaphosa seems to have initially defended the excessive force in the interest of stopping the pandemic. Some human rights organizations have filed petitions in court concerning the rights violations.
For all its faults, this is what sets South Africa apart from its peers on the continent: an independent, if imperfect, judicial system. Though such police brutality should not have occurred and those people should not been killed, there is a peaceful avenue toward accountability. Similarly, though Zuma’s comeuppance has long been delayed, he is now one step closer to it. He is scheduled to stand trial in June, depending on how soon South Africa’s society can return to a semblance of normal. While it is by no means certain that he will be convicted—the episode for which he will be tried occurred more than a decade ago, and evidence goes stale—the whole exercise is itself an achievement. His trial means that a former African chief of state will be forced to account for his alleged crimes by a court of law. This is good for African democracy and for the rule of law.