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'Zumafication' of South Africa tests the nation's justice system

JOHANNESBURG -- More than any previous South African leader, President Jacob Zuma has personally experienced the country's justice system in action both before and after the end of apartheid.

Jailed for a decade on Robben Island Prison under apartheid, and then found not guilty on rape charges and escaping a corruption prosecution in post-apartheid South Africa, Zuma has had his fair share of days in court. Now his critics accuse South Africa's fourth post-apartheid president of encroaching on the independence of the judiciary and appointing supporters to key posts as he fights to extend his presidency for another five years.

“We cannot allow the 'Zumafication' of South Africa's constitutionally independent justice system,” opposition Democratic Alliance leader Helen Zille said this month.

Zuma's appointment of a relatively inexperienced judge as chief justice, the designation of his former trial adviser as the top corruption investigator and plans by the ruling ANC to review judgments of the Constitutional Court — South Africa's highest — reinforces a perception that the independent judiciary is under threat, analysts say.

The justice system has become a key battleground as the African National Congress is embroiled in serious infighting ahead of a crucial party conference to elect a new leader, and by implication South Africa's next president, a year from now.

“The judiciary is not so much in crisis as it is embattled,” said Anne Fruhauf, Africa analyst at Eurasia group.

'Bruising battles'

The independence of the judiciary is a cornerstone of South Africa's constitution and while courts have proven their autonomy in recent rulings, such as the Supreme Court of Appeals overturning Zuma's appointment of Menzi Simelane as head of the National Prosecuting Authority (NPA), there are fears it is now coming under attack. “The judiciary has been involved in some bruising battles, both internal and external, over the past few years which has raised concerns over the relationship between the judiciary, the executive and the ruling party. There appear to be growing tensions over the balance of power between the executive and the judiciary,” said Mike Davies, analyst at risk consultancy Maplecroft. Zuma's appointment of supporters in key judicial roles is a cause for concern. “It is true that Zuma seems to be surrounding himself with acolytes. This is quite apparent when you look at a string of personnel appointments and departures at the NPA (and) the intelligence services,” Eurasia Group's Fruhauf said. Zuma's appointment of former judge Willem Heath to head the Special Investigating Unit, one of the main anti-corruption agencies, was severely criticized by opposition parties.

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