from Africa in Transition

In a Display of Judicial Independence, South African Court Denies Zuma, Again

South Africa's President Jacob Zuma attends the 37th Ordinary SADC Summit of Heads of State and Government in Pretoria, South Africa, August 19, 2017. This is not the first time South African courts have ruled against the embattled president. Siphiwe Sibeko/Reuters

December 14, 2017

South Africa's President Jacob Zuma attends the 37th Ordinary SADC Summit of Heads of State and Government in Pretoria, South Africa, August 19, 2017. This is not the first time South African courts have ruled against the embattled president. Siphiwe Sibeko/Reuters
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South Africa President Jacob Zuma faces more than seven hundred charges of corruption in connection to an arms deal that occurred in the late 1990s, long before he became president. Those charges had been set aside by a lower court while he was president. However, in October the Supreme Court of Appeal upheld the decision of a lower court that the charges could be reinstated now. The decision whether to prosecute rests with the National Prosecuting Authority (NPA), an independent, non-political body. However, after the October ruling, Zuma appointed Shaun Abrahams as chief prosecutor, who is seen as a Zuma ally.

The High Court has now ruled that Zuma’s appointment is invalid: Judge Mlambo said, ‘”in our view, President Zuma would be clearly conflicted in having to appoint a national director of public prosecutions, given the background…and particularly the ever present spectre of the many criminal charges against him that have not gone away.” The court ordered the deputy president, Cyril Ramaphosa, to appoint a new chief prosecutor. The Zuma administration will probably appeal the high court ruling to the Constitutional Court. However, according to British media, the African National Congress (ANC) is saying that the parties involved should “reflect” on the opinion before deciding whether to appeal. 

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Next week, the ruling ANC will hold its national convention where it will choose a new person to succeed Zuma as party leader. The leading candidates are Nkosanza Dlamini-Zuma, Jacob Zuma’s choice candidate and his former wife, and Cyril Ramaphosa, Mr. Zuma’s current vice president. The race is close, and the court’s ruling will probably give Ramaphosa a boost.

The way the court ruling against Zuma and Abrahams unfolded is illustrative of the rule of law in South Africa. Three civil society organizations sued in the courts, arguing that Zuma’s removal of the previous prosecutor so that he could appoint Abrahams was invalid. That suit brought the issue into the court system. As has happened many times in the past, South Africa’s strong and vigilant civil society groups sued against the government, and an independent judiciary found in their favor. The rule of law is more advanced in South Africa than elsewhere because of the independence of the judiciary combined with the strength of civil society and a free press which regularly highlights issues (such as the ties between Zuma and Abrahams) that the administration would prefer to remain in the dark. 
 

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