Ramaphosa prays Zuma keeps his ‘get out of jail free’ card

William Saunderson-Meyer |

19 August 2022

William Saunderson-Meyer says the President does not want to see his predecessor back in prison


At long last President Cyril Ramaphosa and former president Jacob Zuma have something in common. They’re both praying for the success of his latest Stalingrad legal manoeuvres.

A sitting president would rarely find himself secretly rooting for a hated predecessor, one who is actively conspiring to unseat him, to succeed in a judicial appeal against a humiliating jail sentence. It’s very likely, however, that Ramaphosa was hoping for exactly that result in this week’s hearing before the Supreme Court of Appeal in Bloemfontein. 

Behind this unusual situation is Ramaphosa’s inability to carry out the highest obligations of his presidential office, those that command him to ensure the safety and security of South Africa’s people.

The appeal at issue was against a Gauteng High Court ruling that former president Jacob Zuma’s medical parole from jail was unlawful and he should be returned to serve out the rest of his sentence. Zuma previously had been sentenced to 15 months for defying a Constitutional Court order that he appear before the Zondo Commission into State Capture and answer criminally non-incriminatory questions. 

Zuma’s “imprisonment” — he did not spend a single night in a cell but was immediately transferred to a private hospital — was the trigger for last July’s wave of violent unrest. At least 360 people were killed in KwaZulu-Natal and Gauteng, with economic damage exceeding R70bn and 2m job losses, according to testimony before the Human Rights Commission. 


In the face of this “attempted insurrection”, as Ramaphosa defined it, the president folded his hand with alacrity. Zuma was released through an administrative contrivance that could not possibly have taken place without a nod and wink from the Ramaphosa Cabinet. It’s inconceivable, given that the Ramaphosa exhaustively debates everything, even as to whether it should spend R22m on a flag monument, that this would not have been discussed and had to have at least tacit approval.

The release mechanism was an old party favourite, the fake medical parole, which had been employed previously by the African National Congress with great success. The then National Commission of Correction Services (and disgraced former spy boss) Arthur Fraser ruled that Zuma was terminally ill and should be released forthwith. 

In doing so, Fraser had to overrule his department’s own Medical Parole Advisory Board, which had found, based on the assessments of the evidence of five medical specialists, that Zuma definitely did not qualify. This was no hindrance to Fraser, who previously had been “fired” by Ramaphosa over his scary shenanigans at the State Security Agency but then inexplicably offered by Ramaphosa the top job at Correctional Services.

Ramaphosa expressed his customary “surprise and shock” at Zuma’s release, while secretly surely heaving a sigh of relief. The casus bellum had been removed, avoiding a further round of Zuma-inspired rioting, and it was achieved under a sufficiently thick patina of apparent legality that Ramaphosa did not need to be too vigorous in his play-acting.