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Zuma should be held to account for his actions

10th February 2010

By: Amy Witherden


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It seems that all the fuss about President Jacob Zuma's love child is misdirected. Besides the gossip over culture and morality, there are some important constitutional and political issues at stake.

Let us compare Zuma's sex scandal to those of leaders in other democracies.


Zuma has claimed his Zulu culture as justification for his indiscretion, but this defence is irrelevant.

What is crucial to recognise, is that democracies demand accountability of leaders to the people that they serve.


In a democracy, leaders are elected by the people. This means that they are chosen to represent the peoples' interests and values. Thus, accountability is the cornerstone of democracy.

What happens when a leader does wrong, or betrays the trust of his people?

The electorate will probably lose faith in its leader.

This is evident in the sex scandals of leaders of two established democracies: the US and Northern Ireland.

Bill Clinton was President of the US from 1993 to 2001. His legacy is overshadowed by the scandal of his alleged affair with White House intern Monica Lewinsky.

The news of this extramarital affair and the resulting investigation, led to a process of impeachment being instigated against Clinton owing to charges of perjury and obstruction of justice. He had, at first, denied the liaison, but later admitted his mistake as "a critical lapse in judgment and a personal failure on [his part] for which [he was] solely and completely responsible".

Following a trial in the Senate, Clinton was eventually acquitted of all charges and remained in office until the 2001 election.

Last month, Northern Ireland was rocked by a sex scandal involving First Minister Peter Robinson's wife, Iris Robinson (also a politician and officeholder), and her affair with a 19-year old man.

Iris Robinson has resigned from her political posts, as she was found to have broken the law by not declaring her financial interest in a business deal in which she obtained a £50 000 loan for her lover.

Peter Robinson has also stepped down, temporarily, in order to clear his name, even though he denies any wrongdoing on his part.

This shows accountability in a real democratic environment.

In both cases, there were legal issues involved, but the scandal remained, with a consequent loss of respect for the leader. A leader's failure to account for his or her actions, should surely toll a death knell for any political career?

There are two issues arising from these examples:
1. In both cases, the leaders knew that their actions were wrong and recognised the need to show remorse in order to regain the confidence of their electorate.
2. In both cases, the leaders accepted that their public positions meant that their private lives were of public interest and that they were therefore answerable to the people.

This is accountability and this is what defines democracy.

Presidents are elected as public representatives of the people. Presidents reflect the values and principles on which nations are founded. A President that disrespects those founding values, betrays his people.

The South African Presidency does not seem recognise this.

The ruling African National Congress (ANC) has defended Zuma, saying that he has broken no laws and that the public should respect his right to privacy. Of course the ruling party has no choice but to support and protect its president, but this is certainly a reflection of its own values and respect for the people of South Africa.

The ANC "welcome[d] and appreciate[d]" Zuma's apology and repeated its call for privacy by appealing to South Africa to "put this matter to rest and give all families concerned the opportunity to reflect on the matter".

Although Section 14 of the Constitution carries the right to privacy, every Constitutional right is balanced by a responsibility. As a public figure, surely Zuma has a responsibility to his electorate?

This responsibility involves an accountability to, and a respect for, South Africans, as the leader of the nation.

It remains to be seen whether Zuma will be answered with the customary comradely "slap on the wrist" or whether his actions will have graver consequences for his political career.

Former President Thabo Mbeki was "recalled" in September 2008 because of alleged interference in the case against Zuma. This showed accountability to the ANC, rather than to the electorate.

Will Zuma's moral indiscretion have similar consequences?

Opposition parties have reacted with predictable scorn. The Congress of the People has called for Zuma to step down, while the Democratic Alliance stated that Zuma's apology means nothing unless he follows it up with action.

The overwhelming impression gained from media and public sentiment, is that this scandal is one too many in a long list of embarrassments.

There have been unconfirmed reports that Zuma broke a secret pact made with ANC heavyweights after the 2007 Polokwane conference, in which he promised to refrain from further sexual misdemeanours.

It is unlikely that Zuma will lose his position as President, after his supporters fought so hard to get him there. But this could affect his standing at the 2012 ANC elective conference. Like Mbeki, this hints at responsibility to party over people.

The governmental precedent of sweeping mistakes under the rug, along with the ruling party's soft declaration of support for its dubious leader, seems to indicate that this episode will end without answers.



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