When ‘mercy’ fails justice

The idea of pardoning former president Jacob Zuma – or putting him under house arrest or suspending his 15-month prison sentence for contempt of court – is absurd. Appeals to show mercy are, in fact, an obfuscation of much-needed justice. Similarly, the rationale that this should be done to prevent possible violence is a travesty of both justice and a proper understanding of a state’s duty to the country.


Jacob Zuma has been condemned by the highest court in the land for deliberately obstructing the criminal justice process. (The evidence suggests he and his cronies are guilty of much more, but that is a matter for further investigation). The claim that he should be shown mercy under the circumstance – his age, his ‘hero’ status, etc. – is incoherent. First, age: if it were proven that his actions were the result of senility, we might consider mercy. They were not. Second, ‘hero’ status: in effect, what one is saying is that if you are a celebrity or politically connected, you are subject to different standards of law than the rest of us. The last time I checked that has never been the case in the South African judicial system.


So, what about some appeal to Christian charity or mercy? This distorts the long Christian tradition. Until the mid-20th Century, the Church held strong views on both mercy and punishment; God’s mercy is always available, but it did not excuse the sinner from punishment. Confessions often occurred before executions – not in place of them – and the absolved went to their death secure in the knowledge that their soul was saved, even as they paid their ‘debt’ to society. (I know, people don’t like to hear this nowadays – but it happened).


Even in lesser offences, the practice of confession always entailed penances. Interestingly, penances were apportioned according to the social status of the penitent – you got a heavier penance for the same offence if you were higher up the social scale because you were considered to have the social capacity to do better.


What then of the threat of violent chaos if Zuma is sent to jail? Once again, this is no excuse. Imagine if I were to threaten a riot if I were jailed for an ordinary crime? What would be done? The police would act to stop my rent-a-mob by whatever means necessary. That… or the society would simply agree not to prosecute people who could organize such retaliation. Would the rule of law survive under the latter? No.


There are no grounds to let intimidation tactics sway the course of justice. The state’s role (echoing Weber) is to keep order. If Zuma’s friends try something, the state must stop them efficiently and decisively. And if there is bloodshed, it’s on their hands, not the state’s. By their very attempt to subvert the law, they are outside the law and cease to be ‘innocent’.


The future of the rule of law is at stake. Therefore, any attempt at ‘mercy’ is under the circumstance both weakness and, indirectly, a slap in the face of the rule of law.

Fr Anthony Egan SJ

Fr Anthony Egan SJ (born Cape Town 1966; entered the Jesuits 1990; ordained 2002) has taught, full-time or part-time, at St Augustine College of South Africa, St John Vianney Seminary, Fordham University (on sabbatical) and the University of the Witwatersrand. The author/co-author of a number of books, book chapters, academic and popular articles, he is a correspondent for America magazine, a contributor to Worldwide and writes for spotlight.africa. He is also a commentator on local and international radio and television. He is an Honorary Fellow of the Helen Suzman Foundation. Extramural interests include Science Fiction, Theatre, Art and creative writing, including poetry.

a.egan@jesuitinstitute.org.za
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