Ex-president Jacob Zuma topped the agenda at the ANC National Executive Committee (NEC) on 5 July. Zuma has lodged a last-minute appeal against a 15-month prison sentence for failing to appear before the Zondo commission on state capture. The Constitutional Court will now hear a recission application on 12 July but seems unlikely to overturn its prior verdict. Yet the question over when and how Zuma will be arrested is fueling frantic political noise. This will be a delicate matter, but the most important takeaway is that the ANC NEC has publicly backed the judiciary and that the Zuma matter, in and of itself, is unlikely to split the party.
The case is seen as a key test for the rule of law. Nevertheless, Zuma’s 11th- hour legal maneuvers, which offer few new legal arguments, are mainly expected to delay the inevitable rather than alter the outcome. The Constitutional Court will have agreed to hear the application to give Zuma – who is in familiar political martyr mode – every chance of a fair hearing. Nevertheless, the court seems highly unlikely to overturn its prior unanimous verdict and sentence.
Amid press concerns that the ANC’s support for the judiciary was lukewarm, the ANC NEC today, 6 July, delivered an encouragingly strong statement emphasizing “[o]ur unequivocal commitment to and defence of the Constitution,… the rule of law and the independence of the Judiciary.” This is another sign of President Cyril Ramaphosa’s current strength within the NEC, notwithstanding broader ANC dysfunction.
The most delicate immediate question is how and when the executive will enforce Zuma’s arrest. Technically, the Constitutional Court order requires Zuma to be arrested by 7 July. A regional court today heard his application for a stay of his arrest pending the 12 July recission hearing but appears to have no jurisdiction over the decision. Meanwhile, Police Minister Bheki Cele and Police Commissioner Khehla Sitole have sent an unusual letter to acting Chief Justice Raymond Zondo informing him that they will not enforce the arrest for now, pending the 12 July hearing or a Constitutional Court instruction to the contrary.
This may raise questions about the executive’s readiness to enforce the rule of law, though the case arguably requires delicate political handling in light of the noise and threats generated by a small but hard core of Zuma supporters. Beyond social media mobilization, supporters (estimated to be in the hundreds, some armed) have gathered outside Zuma’s Nkandla homestead – in utter defiance of “Level 4” pandemic regulations – and have threatened to resist any attempts to arrest the ex-president. The Ramaphosa administration will want to avoid bloodshed around the arrest, so for now further NEC emissaries may try to convince Zuma to accept arrest.
At the end of the day, the biggest risk for Ramaphosa is not so much an outright split in the party given Zuma’s much reduced following, but a broader KwaZulu-Natal problem because the province feels increasingly marginalized at the top. Such sentiments could be reinforced if Ramaphosa also were to fire temporarily suspended Health Minister Zweli Mkhize over corruption accusations. As that matter may go to court, Ramaphosa might yet put off his much-anticipated cabinet reshuffle even longer.