In punishing Zuma and Trump we indict ourselves, but it must be done

Saturday August 05 2023
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Former US president Donald Trump. PHOTO | AFP


There is hardly anything elegant in the spectre of a former head of state being pursued criminally, and what is happening to Donald Trump and Jacob Zuma is particularly shabby.

Two jurisdictions' worlds apart have found that their former chiefs were worth investigating for infractions committed either in or out of office, and in the case of one of them it has been decided that he go to jail while the other’s fate still has to be decided.

The want of elegance I mean here flows from the fact that these two individuals once occupied exalted positions, were looked up to by whole nations and should be considered role models by large portions of the societies wherein they evolved.

To now turn around and say they ought to go to jail kind of demeans the governance systems that they served, and which are now looking to lock them up as thugs.

Read: Trump to appear in court, accused of endangering US democracy

When we accept individuals as being worthy of our trust and able to guide our national affairs, we are in effect creating a filial relationship; we are family and, as such, are bound to feel hurt alongside them.


Part of us is invested in their persons, and their moral death does kill something in us too.

Of course, there will always be the schadenfreude— “I’m happy because you’re miserable” — section, but that is the proverbial exception that proves the rule: Joe Biden wouldn’t shed a tear, nor would Thabo Mbeki.

What I am saying is that when we choose people who govern us, we are supposed to skim the top crust of the pot and distil la crème de la crème, and not scrape the bottom of the pond to scoop up the dredges that we then enthrone and crown and hail as royalty.

Now, if this sounds idealistic it is because it is, and we have to be guided by lofty ideals to which we aspire, even if, like in many other aspects, the pleasure lies in the pursuit rather than the capture.

Still, there must be parameters, yardsticks by which we can appreciate those in office for us. Consensus may be hard to come by, but by my reckoning, all the philandering of a Bill Clinton, in terms of aggravated villainy, Donald Trump's him hands down.

Thabo Mbeki, critiqued for perceived aloofness and misguided notions on HIV/Aids, cannot be equated to Zuma and his runaway corruption and state capture.

Read: Burglary scandal: Ramaphosa denies offence

So, the reckoning for Zuma has taken place, and in his advanced age he unfortunately has to pay for his crimes, while Trump’s comeuppance may yet catch up with him before next year’s election.

The fact that he is the (by far) leading candidate in his party’s early sifting process may not save him from a possible jail term. Already, he has scored a few firsts and he may chalk up some more.

Recently, Zuma was allowed out of jail on medical parole, and the issue being discussed now is whether those days he spent temporarily outside jail should be added onto his remaining days to be served.

These two men have both demonstrated what the ancient Grecian concept of hubris and nemesis actually, and literally, means in our time and age. Trump held himself as totally untouchable, capable of doing murder on the high street and walking away without a thought about it — so what is a little attack on the Capitol on January 6?

Zuma’s defence before his colleagues is that they couldn’t say that he had done anything that they themselves had not done.

While Thabo was being humiliated at Polokwane 16 years ago, Zuma went on record to tell his supporters that they need not continue hitting a snake whose head they had already crushed. That is hubris, and it has come back to bite him.

But what is all this in aid of? As I have said above, in a way we are likely to engage in self-flagellation by pillorying people we ourselves put on a pedestal. That is true, to some extent, and yet we have to consider what the alternative might be.

By avoiding the embarrassment inherent in the humiliation of our leaders, would we not be encouraging notions of impunity and entitlement? How could we then offer to posterity examples of good that must be lauded, and bad that must be castigated: The quintessential bonus-malus situation?

It is by rewarding good behaviour and punishing bad behaviour that we establish standards of behaviour and precedents and yardsticks by which all must abide.

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We have had the misfortune of having an individual propelled to the highest echelons of national governance structures with the only claim to fame being that he was not corrupt. How painful is it when such an individual becomes a notable thief while in office? That he was not called out and chastised by his people is one of the saddest realities in our recent history.

On the strength of this fact, I fear we will not be able to hold our future rulers to any strict standard of ethical behaviour. In such a rudderless polity we open ourselves to accidents of all manner of rogue politicians, such as Trump and his soulmate, Zuma.