South Africa sings in the anti-corruption chorus

The prosecution of a former president on corruption reflects a global trend among many democracies to end impunity and ensure equality of law.

South Africa's Jacob Zuma gestures after announcing his resignation as president on Feb. 14 in Pretoria.

The list keeps getting longer, and for good reason.

On March 16, Jacob Zuma of South Africa became the latest current or former leader of a democracy to be charged with corruption. He now joins many other leaders – in nations from South Korea to Brazil, Israel to Argentina – who have recently faced prosecution because of rising calls to end a culture of impunity in high places.

With many countries embracing autocracy, every victory against a corrupt elected official can help ensure transparency and accountability in democratic states.

Mr. Zuma, who was forced to step down as president last month by the ruling African National Congress (ANC), faces charges related to a government arms deal in the late 1990s, before he was elected. For years he was able to fend off the charges, which only helped send a message that anyone in government can be a law unto themselves rather than to constitutional principles, such as equality before the law.

His political downfall came in large part from a robust combination of players committed to honest government in South Africa, such as civic activists, investigative journalists, and key prosecutors and judges. They all helped expose Zuma’s alleged self-enrichment. Ordinary citizens also began to see a connection between ANC corruption and their own economic woes.

The public upwelling against the ANC has forced the new president, Cyril Ramaphosa, to make a bold promise: “This is the year in which we will turn the tide of corruption in our public institutions.”

With the ANC’s popularity in decline, Mr. Ramaphosa knows he must unite the nation through a vigorous anti-graft campaign, starting within his own party. If he can shore up enough political capital, he might be able to achieve difficult reforms, such as equitable land distribution.

The other side of the argument, however, is that the “rainbow nation” of the late Nelson Mandela has a recent history of balancing harsh justice with necessary mercy for ex-rulers. South Africa is famous for its attempt to use a “truth and reconciliation commission” to offer leniency for those who confess their apartheid-era wrongdoing. Ramaphosa could be tempted to pardon Zuma – if he is convicted – to prevent potential violence among Zuma’s ethnic base of Zulus in KwaZulu-Natal province.

But first the trial must proceed, and only then can South Africans send a yet another message to their leaders about the best standards of justice for the nation. Their values, not just their leaders, are at stake.

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