Former president Jacob Zuma's petulant and unlawful exit at the Zondo commission on 19 November, having lost his application to have Deputy Chief Justice Raymond Zondo recuse himself, was reminiscent of another former president's petulant and arrogant behaviour more than 20 years ago.
Former president FW de Klerk was deeply unhappy with the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) when, in May 1997, probing questions were put to him by the commission's leader of evidence, advocate Glen Goosen, about his role and that of the State Security Council, in crimes committed by the apartheid state, namely, killings, enforced disappearances and the torture of anti-apartheid activists.
De Klerk stated that neither he, the apartheid state nor Cabinet, the State Security Council or any committee of the state had authorised the "assassinations, murder, torture, rape, assault or gross human rights violations" and refused to accept any responsibility for the violations.
Deeply saddened by De Klerk's denial and almost in tears, Archbishop Desmond Tutu told a media conference on 15 May 1997 that:
"The denial that the former National Party's government's policies gave security forces a licence to kill was devastating."
Alex Boraine, the archbishop's deputy went further and said the commission believed the "National Party and De Klerk had to accept political accountability for policies that would inevitably have led to atrocities, like the state of emergency legislation".
Tutu and Boraine's statements incensed De Klerk and the NP leadership, who contended that the TRC acted unfairly by publicly criticising the oral submission made by the NP on 14 May 1997 and hence, created an impression of bias. They demanded that Tutu and Boraine recuse themselves and apologise for their remarks.
Unfortunately, unlike Zondo, instead of fighting the application in the High Court, Tutu and Boraine apologised to De Klerk, much to the chagrin of the remaining commissioners.
Tutu's explanation at the time was that he would not wish anything he had said at the press conference on 15 May 1997 to stand in the way of national unity and reconciliation. He pointed out that he had spoken from the heart and that he and Boraine believed passionately in "a reconciliation which binds all through truths that are shared". He also said that he was sorry that the NP felt unfairly treated.
In hindsight, it is unlikely that Tutu and Boraine would have apologised if they knew then that the application by De Klerk and the NP was only the appetizer to further litigation against the TRC and that, in October 1998, on the eve of handing over the TRC report to then president Nelson Mandela, the NP and De Klerk would file a case to suppress the proposed findings against De Klerk.
Professor Charles Villa Vicencio, the head of the TRC's research unit then, almost suffered a heart attack at having to recall the trucks with the TRC reports from their journey to Pretoria so that the offending finding could be removed.
The commission symbolically blacked out the finding, sending a message to all South Africans that it was being censored, reminiscent of the apartheid era.
De Klerk consistently denied that apartheid was not a crime against humanity and that the apartheid state had not been a criminal state authorising death squads to take out opponents of the state, denying that the systemic policies of apartheid had dehumanised black South Africans, robbing them of dignity.
It took more than 23 years, following the publication of the TRC's report, for De Klerk to admit that apartheid was a crime against humanity. He only did so because public opprobrium of him compelled him to do so.
Sanctimoniously, the FW de Klerk Foundation has been quick off the mark in stating that "former president Jacob Zuma can run from the state capture inquiry but he cannot hide", given De Klerk's own behaviour in 1998.
Despite the obvious hypocrisy, the foundation's stance raises the stakes for Zondo to be seen acting decisively against former president Zuma, who has put the principle of presidential accountability to the people and equality before the law at risk.
Presidential accountability and equality before the law lie at the heart of our constitutional democracy and are premised on long-established principles that those elected as presidents must be accountable to us, the people.
Thuli Madonsela, the courageous former Public Protector revealed the depth of Zuma's corruption in two scathing reports. The Constitutional Court reinforced her findings and recommendations in two watershed judgments of its own, which led to Zuma being recalled by the ANC's national executive committee.
Resignation in shame
Facing a vote of no confidence, the defiant president eventually resigned in shame. However, the Public Protector's reports were only the beginning of further revelations by the media of the corruption and depravity in both the public and private sectors.
The appointment, by Chief Justice Mogoeng Mogoeng, of Zondo as the chairperson of the state capture commission, has been critical to the understanding of how the former president Zuma and his cronies, including the Guptas, looted South Africa. The media and civil society have clamoured for the political elites in our country to be held accountable to the same rules as ordinary citizens. South Africans yearn to see those who looted in orange overalls and shackles.
Zuma's refusal to be testify and be held accountable for his role in economic crimes and corruption, threatens the credibility of the Zondo commission- and if not addressed, sends a signal to other witnesses that they too may refuse to appear.
Zondo's zeal and commitment to the rule of law is to be admired as is his stated intention of pursuing the former president, using the full might of the law, including approaching the Constitutional Court, if necessary, to compel him to testify. Zondo should not echo the TRC's mistake in letting FW De Klerk off the hook. The repercussions would be devastating for South Africa.
In 2016, in the , Mogoeng said that in order to limit the state power "...constitutionalism, accountability and the rule of law constitute the sharp and mighty sword that stands ready to chop the ugly head of impunity off its stiffened neck".
Ensuring that former president Zuma appears before the Zondo commission is neither capricious nor victimisation, but an imperative step in addressing the impunity that began during the apartheid era and which Zuma and his cronies took to new heights, tarnishing the democracy that we fought for so hard.
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