South Africa: Jacob Zuma and the Unbalanced Scales of Justice

Former President Jacob Zuma in April 2015.

Jacob Zuma, who often complains that the courts treat him unfairly, has benefited handsomely from state funds to conduct his legal defence. This has enabled him to buy an advantage that 99.9% of criminal accused could only dream of.

This week, the Supreme Court of Appeal (SCA) confirmed that the use of state funds to pay former president Jacob Zuma's private lawyers who represented him in matters relating to his prosecution for corruption was unlawful and unconstitutional.

The SCA also confirmed that Zuma was obliged to pay back the money to the state. But the judgment further contains a timely warning about the problem of elected officials using access to (seemingly unlimited) state funds "to resist being held accountable" by obstructing or delaying a prosecution.

Some South Africans regularly complain that individuals involved in criminal activities -- but who happen to have pots of money, political influence or social and economic power -- are seldom investigated and prosecuted. As race remains a significant marker of economic inequality in South Africa, there is also a widespread perception that the criminal justice system tends to favour white suspects over black suspects.

In those cases in which rich and powerful individuals are prosecuted,...

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