The time to talk about granting President Jacob Zuma amnesty for crimes he may have committed, or letting him get away with it in any other way, is long over.

I made a case for some form of deal with Zuma in a column eight years ago, saying it would be worth compromising our principles and bending our constitution if only we could get rid of him and his corrupt inner circle and restore accountability.

But in the eight years since then, Zuma and his cronies just got more brazen and ambitious and today we’re talking about billions in state money being stolen, not hundreds of thousands or millions like we did then.

We were shocked at “tenderpreneurship” and expensive gifts from business friends eight years ago; now whole chunks of the state have been sold off and three immigrant brothers have power over the cabinet.

There is, of course, no legal way to grant the president amnesty from prosecution. Our constitution won’t allow it.

As constitutional expert Pierre de Vos explains: “The only legally valid option would be for an incoming president to pardon Zuma after he had been convicted of fraud, money laundering, corruption and/or racketeering.” (He could have added: and sentenced to 15 years in jail).

Sure, the National Prosecuting Authority could simply decide not to prosecute him. But the courts, if so requested, are highly likely to order the NPA to change such an irrational decision. Even if that fails, there is always Gerrie ‘Bulldog’ Nel and the chance of a private prosecution.

But the talk in the dark corridors is now about getting a massive heap of money together to bribe Zuma to get on a plane one night and fly away to Dubai, with or without his Gupta buddies (if they’re not there already).

As seductive as such a quick, clean break and the chance of a new start may sound, we should make sure that it doesn’t happen.

For one, we’re only five months away from the ANC’s elective conference where Zuma will be replaced as ANC leader, and the chances seem to get better and better that his preferred candidate won’t be his successor.

In that case, he will most likely be recalled as president of the country, and the rebuilding of a moral and accountable state can begin. Why would we want to make such a huge compromise if there’s a real possibility that Zuma won’t be our president in six or seven months’ time?

But there’s another reason. The rot has spread from the head to the body of the ANC and the state. All of it has to be removed. If we make a small incision and put a bandage over it, it will grow again.

Jacob Zuma and all his accomplices should be brought before a court and only after a verdict should we talk about possible amnesty.

Civil society, the media and opposition parties should make sure that more and more information about the corruption and state capture is exposed in the weeks and months ahead so that the case for prosecution becomes too overwhelming to ignore.

Mercifully, we still have a functioning and independent judiciary and if the right information is put before it, it will make the right decisions.

But the ANC leadership on all levels and members countrywide should also start realising that Zuma’s game is just about up. To keep on protecting Zuma is not only immoral, it is against the interests of the ANC.

But then, politics doesn’t seem to be the place where people learn from their mistakes.

Over the last few months, we have been treated by dozens of present and former ANC politicians expressing their regrets that they had helped Jacob Zuma become the president of the ANC in 2007 and get re-elected in 2012: Blade Nzimande, Kgalema Motlanthe, Julius Malema, Zwelinzima Vavi, Jeremy Cronin, Solly Mapaila, Thulas Nxesi and others.

Others, like Zweli Mkhize, Gwede Mantashe, Cyril Ramaphosa and Jackson Mthembu, have not expressed their remorse in so many words, but we know they deeply regret their role in his rise.

Imagine how different our politics – and economy – would have been if the ANC delegates hadn’t voted for the Zuma slate in 2012, by which time the rot was already clear for all to see, and Motlanthe had become our president.

Many ANC parliamentarians are today ashamed of the way they protected Zuma over the years, especially during the Nkandla scandal. Mathole Motshekga is a case in point.

Imagine what could have been if the ANC caucus had lived up to their oath as parliamentarians and held Zuma accountable, on Nkandla and on the Gupta state capture.

Imagine how different it would have been if they had done their overseeing job properly when it became clear that the SABC, Eskom, SAA and other state-owned enterprises were being used to loot on a grand scale.

We should be very sceptical about these mea culpas. They knew at the time Zuma was the wrong man, but they thought they could control him and so the state. Now it’s the other way round and suddenly they’re sorry.

Some just lusted after power and privilege. Others simply went with the flow, too scared to make a stand in case it sullied their political future and threatened their bank balances.

If ANC leaders and parliamentarians did learn from their mistakes, they would embark on a wholly different course from now on.

They would, for example, read the text of Chief Justice Mogoeng Mogoeng’s judgment in the case around a secret ballot when the motion of no confidence in Zuma is put to parliament.

Mogoeng didn’t tell the Speaker and her party what to do, but he did point out that members of Parliament swore an oath, not to the ANC, but to the constitution and the people of South Africa.

When MPs vote, they should vote for what is right and good for South Africa. Party orders should be a secondary consideration.

We know by now that those ANC MPs suspected of planning to vote for the motion are being threatened, in Makhosi Khoza’s case with her life.

That’s a good reason why the vote should be a secret one, and if the ANC decides that it should be, Baleka Mbete will make that an order.

It seems inevitable that MPs like Khoza, Pravin Gordhan, Derek Hanekom and a number of others are either going to vote for the motion, or abstain.

The good people in the ANC should have enough foresight to know that they will do great harm to their party if they allow Khoza and others to be “disciplined” because of this.

But the ANC, especially the parliamentary caucus, should learn another lesson from their mistakes and tackle the corrupt departments and state-owned companies with greater vigour.

We saw what it could achieve in the case of the SABC.

It’s crunch time, the next six months.