A seeming aggrieved former president Jacob Zuma roused his supporters with bold and daring words.
Zuma arrived back in South Africa from his trip to Cuba for medical treatment, seeking to galvanise his supporters ahead of his upcoming criminal trial and, possibly, an appearance before the Zondo commission of inquiry into state capture.
Received by about 1 000 supporters operating under the banner of the Radical Economic Transformation (RET) forces, Zuma immediately hit out at his detractors.
“I am not afraid of jail. I have been to jail during the struggle. There is no longer any space for democratic debate. The only space there is for court arguments by lawyers. That is not democracy,” said Zuma.
Leading the raucous reception was a who’s who of the vocal ANC leadership faction opposed to President Cyril Ramaphosa.
There was former North West premier Supra Mahumapelo; weekend-long finance minister Des van Rooyen; Ekurhuleni mayor Mzwandile Masina, Free State chairperson Sam Mashinini; and Umkhonto weSizwe Military Veterans’ Association (MKMVA) president Kebby Maphatsoe and its spokesperson, Carl Niehaus.
Upon landing, Zuma was whisked away to the protocol lounge, where he underwent a quick medical check-up.
The elder statesman, whose plane landed at 11.30am, spent almost two hours in the protocol lounge before eventually emerging to address the large crowd of supporters who had packed the arrivals terminal at OR Tambo International Airport.
Wearing dark glasses, Zuma immediately addressed the elephant in the room, explaining that his illness had affected his eyes and made them sensitive to the light.
“Since we have our friends, the media, who will run and report that he [Zuma] has lost his eyesight, let me remove the glasses to show you that I can still see,” said Zuma.
He then removed the sunglasses and exposed his eyes, which looked slightly swollen.
An RET member who welcomed the former president and his contingent of bodyguards told City Press that Zuma “is still unwell” and was only back in the country “because of his determination to show his willingness to participate in the court processes”.
Zuma explained that he “wouldn’t lie and claim that I am sick if I really wasn’t”, adding that he was prepared to face whatever charges were made against him – a sentiment that was met with loud cheers.
He refused to divulge more on the charges he was facing, the warrant of arrest or the illness that had led to him seeking treatment in Cuba.
Masina a staunch ally of the former president, challenged the issuing and the timing of the warrant of arrest against Zuma, saying it exposed the attitude of the judiciary as being against him.
“The judge could have sought other avenues before resorting to issuing the warrant of arrest,” he said.
Mahumapelo said he was aware that there was a large portion of the country’s population who wanted to see Zuma behind bars.
“However,” he said, “due processes must be taken.”
Zuma’s arrival was meant to be a catalyst for the RET forces, who have felt galvanised since the Pietermaritzburg High Court issued a warrant of arrest for him over an unconvincing medical note that his lawyers had submitted to explain his absence.
The faction, which is constituted mainly of those who opposed Ramaphosa’s ascension to the leadership of the party in 2017, wants to consolidate resistance to him ahead of the ANC’s national general conference in June.
But its influence has been dismissed by senior ANC leaders, who see it as nothing more than a coalition of those who face prosecution for state capture-related corruption.
On Thursday, the group had gathered again in Kliptown, Soweto, where they reiterated their support for the former president and plotted a way forward.
At the meeting, they also bemoaned the weakness of the ANC in Parliament and said the economic situation in the country had worsened after Zuma left government.
Former government minister Van Rooyen told the Kliptown crowd: “We were told that Zuma was the cause of the weak economy, we were told we are the contributors of the plummeting rand. Look now: unemployment is high, poverty is on the rise and state-owned enterprises are struggling, so South Africans are being taken for granted,” he said.
Van Rooyen reiterated that some ANC members had been captured by “white monopoly capital” and were being used to fight the battles of people who had accumulated their wealth during the apartheid era.
Referring to himself as a member of the national RET movement, he shared his belief that Zuma was being used as a “scapegoat” for the problems the country was facing.
Van Rooyen said he believed this was a deliberate attempt to divert South Africans from real issues affecting the country.
He said that “people were being bought” and used the ANC’s 54th elective conference in 2017 – where Ramaphosa was elected to lead the governing party – as an example.
“They are buying people left, right and centre. We have seen what happened at Nasrec, and they said numbers don’t lie. The evidence is there; even today, the poor soul [Public Protector Busisiwe] Mkhwebane has been victimised because she revealed his funders,” said Van Rooyen.
A member of the ANC’s national executive committee (NEC), who spoke on condition of anonymity, said the party was not worried about the grouping and accused the RET of trying to sustain a conspiracy of persecution.
“Their actions show that we were correct in adopting the resolutions we did at Mangaung and Nasrec to fight corruption. Look at the people who were there and those who accompanied Bongani Bongo in court on Friday [the ANC MP is facing corruption charges]. Their spokesperson was Mosebenzi Zwane, who we all know has pending cases.
“They are using JZ, who has become a symbol of division for those who are in trouble with the law. They have institutionalised a faction and called it RET. But RET is a resolution of the ANC conference.
“They are using him in anticipation of their own cases of corruption. They are hoping that if they undermine the judiciary now with this case, they can argue the same in their own cases. They are trying to sustain a conspiracy of persecution,” said the NEC member, who added that the RET had failed to attract the thousands of supporters it had promised to at the airport.
At the Kliptown meeting, the MKMVA’s Shirley Brown expressed concern about the ANC’s parliamentary caucus, noting that the party was allowing the EFF to build a narrative that the governing party was defending former president FW de Klerk.
“I was so embarrassed that [EFF president] Julius Malema was busy with De Klerk, and our own MPs protected him. I was in bed and I couldn’t continue to watch,” Brown said.
She then criticised the governing party for allowing the opposition party to reintroduce ANC policies in Parliament.
Brown said the ANC had brilliant policies and resolutions, which were decided on at its 54th conference in Nasrec in December 2017, and those resolutions had to be implemented.
“Julius is not a member of our party, but he is our product; that is why he is running with our policies. We have policies, but the MPs get to Parliament and sit on the policies, and Julius takes them and runs with them. We must not allow that,” she said.
Niehaus, who was also present at the Kliptown meeting, rebuked any RET or Zuma detractors – in particular, Minister of Justice and Correctional Services Ronald Lamola.
Following the press briefing held by the group last Wednesday, Lamola ridiculed the RET members, saying they were thieves.
Niehaus made it clear that an apology from Lamola would not be sufficient.
He said that this was why the RET had decided to sue him for defamation instead – something that may prove impossible as free speech in the legislature is covered by the rules of parliamentary privilege.
“We are not saying he must apologise. We are saying: ‘You have defamed us, so now you must pay.’ Our lawyers advised us that we have a good case. It is always important to take on these kinds of attacks,” the military veteran said.