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17/03/2018 09:59 SAST | Updated 17/03/2018 10:28 SAST

Zille And Selfe Bring Down Zuma's Praetorian Guard

Helen Zille wasn't over the moon after Friday's announcement that Jacob Zuma will be prosecuted: "It's a decade late, isn't it?"

Helen Zille, then DA leader, outside the High Court in Pretoria on September 4, 2014, with the evidence bag containing the so-called "spy tapes".
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Helen Zille, then DA leader, outside the High Court in Pretoria on September 4, 2014, with the evidence bag containing the so-called "spy tapes".

It was in the autumn of 2009 that Helen Zille, then leader of the DA, knew that the courts would be the only way to ensure that Jacob Zuma, then the ANC's president, would face justice.

"It was an unpopular thing to do. There was a lot of goodwill towards Zuma back then, and I even had to convince many in my own caucus that we were going to have to use the courts (to ensure Zuma's prosecution)," Zille said on Friday afternoon, after the announcement that Zuma will be prosecuted on various charges of fraud, corruption, racketeering and money laundering.

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Jacob Zuma appears in a courtroom on February 4, 2009 in Pietermaritzburg.

Zuma will now appear in the High Court in Durban to face allegations that he used his position as deputy president between 1999 and 2005 to help further the business interests of his friend and associate, Schabir Shaik, and that he was paid bribes to shield a French arms company from scrutiny during the fall-out after the conclusion of the controversial arms deal.

A Praetorian guard of ministers, MPs, bureaucrats, directors-general, police commissioners, heads of prosecution and ANC leaders moved into place and protected Zuma from all scrutiny and shielded him from attempts to revive the charges.

In the intervening years, Zuma was elected ANC president twice, was returned to the Union Buildings as head of state (twice), and was fervently and vociferously defended by the governing party, its leadership and its allies. Not only was the initial efforts of Zille and her right-hand man, the party's long-serving federal chairperson James Selfe, broadly unpopular – but the DA went up against a party and president that thought nothing of manipulating and debasing state institutions to get their way and protect their man.

READ: Zuma Cheat Sheet: Seven Questions Answered

Zuma, who never truly believed in transparent and participatory democracy, sprang into action immediately after his dramatic ANC electoral victory at Polokwane in 2007 and proceeded to gut the justice cluster. The Scorpions, a highly effective and feared anti-corruption unit, was disbanded, and the independent-minded national director of public prosecutions Vusi Pikoli was fired by placeholder president Kgalema Motlanthe shortly thereafter. Parliament, that had experienced an abbreviated Prague Spring of accountability, was also quickly whipped into line.

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Then-president Thabo Mbeki announces he has fired Jacob Zuma as his deputy on June 14, 2005.

A Praetorian guard of ministers, MPs, bureaucrats, directors-general, police commissioners, heads of prosecution and ANC leaders moved into place and protected Zuma from all scrutiny and shielded him from attempts to revive the charges.

READ: Zuma's Indictment On Corruption Sets An African Precedent

It was in this atmosphere that Zille and Selfe embarked on a journey through the country's courts, which took them almost a decade and cost millions and millions of rands.

"It was just nonsensical to us that Zuma could escape prosecution because of intercepted conversations between [then-Scorpions boss Leonard] McCarthy and [Bulelani] Ngcuka [a former prosecutions head] that had nothing to do with the substantive facts," Zille explained.

A turning point came in 2014, when the High Court in Pretoria ruled that the so-called "spy tapes", the infamous McCarthy-Ngcuka conversations used by Zuma as the basis of his arguments showing improper interference, should be handed to Zille.

The party filed application after application in the country's high courts; it opposed countless arguments by Zuma and his Stalingrad strategists, Michael Hulley and advocate Kemp J Kemp, and it beat a path to the Supreme Court of Appeal in Bloemfontein. Zille, Selfe and the DA were accused of using "lawfare" to thwart the governing party, while the judiciary itself was smeared by the ANC, its leaders and its alliance partners. Gwede Mantashe famously referred to high court judges as "counter-revolutionary".

STR via Getty Images
Brothers in arms: Blade Nzimande, SACP general secretary, Zwelinzima Vavi, then Cosatu's general secretary, and Jacob Zuma outside the High Court in Pietermaritzburg on September 12, 2008. They all contended that Zuma was wrongfully prosecuted.

A turning point came in 2014, when the High Court in Pretoria ruled that the so-called "spy tapes", the infamous McCarthy-Ngcuka conversations used by Zuma as the basis of his arguments showing improper interference, should be handed to Zille.

READ: Cloud Hangs Over KZN Prosecutor Tasked With Zuma's Case

It was a triumph for her, and the court's ruling meant that the National Prosecuting Authority's iron grip on the case was broken. She emerged from the court building clutching the evidence bag containing the recordings.

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Then-president Jacob Zuma speaks to Helen Zille. who was DA leader at the time, at the start of the national social cohesion summit on July 4, 2012 in Soweto.

All the court judgments subsequent to that agreed with her and the DA: the recordings should not preclude Zuma from being prosecuted.

READ: Arms Deal Heroes 'Vindicated' By Zuma Prosecution Decision

Zille, who is in her final stretch as premier of Western Cape and no longer DA leader, wasn't overjoyed late on Friday afternoon. "There is a feeling of satisfaction, yes, but it's a decade late, isn't it? This should have happened long ago, and so much damage has been done in the meantime," she said.

If the Zuma matter had been left in the hands of prosecutors Menzi Simelane, Nomgcobo Jiba, Shaun Abrahams and others, Zuma would still be sitting pretty.

But the courts – and a dogged leader of the opposition – had other ideas.