Zuma’s Revenge

Is South Africa's embattled president finally getting tough on corruption? Or just going after his enemies?

Daniel Berehulak/Getty Images
Daniel Berehulak/Getty Images

JOHANNESBURG – When South African President Jacob Zuma fired two cabinet ministers and suspended his police chief in late October, questions swirled as to whether he had finally sent an effective, well-intentioned message to the notoriously corrupt officials of Africa’s largest economy — or whether he was merely using the guise of reform to shore up waning popular support as he prepares for reelection.

Additionally, the firing on Thursday, Nov. 10, of Zuma’s popular main detractor and fellow African National Congress (ANC) party member Julius Malema, leader of the 350,000-strong ANC Youth League, points to the president’s desire to keep his party unified as it prepares for national elections in December 2012. It will be the first time Zuma — who ousted predecessor Thabo Mbeki in an internal party coup in 2007 — has actually run for president.

The decisive action against both corruption and Malema — a 30-year-old rabble-rouser other ANC leaders have labeled an embarrassment — prove Zuma isn’t taking any chances. The question is whether the president waited too long to act and whether his actions sent a loud enough message — and whether the moves are too little, too late. His grip on power could already be slipping. A September poll from the South African marketing group TNS showed that 45 percent of adults in metropolitan areas approved of the job Zuma was doing, compared with 48 percent just six months before.

"He would have looked a hell of a lot better if he’d taken this action a hell of a lot earlier," says David Lewis, head of Corruption Watch, a new agency founded by the South African labor organization Cosatu. "I can think of few democracies in the world where they wouldn’t have been gone ages ago. Zuma’s had a lot of time to test the water."

The two October dismissals are the second time this year that Zuma has rejuggled his cabinet, attempting to appease critics who say he is too soft on corruption. Two prominent public aides, Cooperative Governance Minister Sicelo Shiceka (in charge of monitoring local governments) and Gwen Mahlangu-Nkabinde, the minister of public works, were let go, accused by Zuma of malpractice while in office.

The president’s efforts to show a newfound dedication to eradicating corruption have so far been met with skepticism. Many in South Africa’s political class believe Zuma has long benefited financially from corruption.

"Part of it surely was political posturing," says Thomas Cargill, co-chair of the Africa program at the London think tank Chatham House, and the need to massage the discontent that has been rapidly becoming more vocal ahead of the elections. "There’s real anger over the culture of corruption that’s built up the last couple of years. Zuma really felt like he needed to respond, and respond in a public way."

Members of the general public were not the only ones needing appeasement, however. Within his own party, Zuma has been fighting tooth and nail against an angry opposition. His conflict with the Youth League, which controls a sizable voting bloc, might be leading the president to look "more closely to union support, taking into account both public pressure and the new political divisions," says Lewis. Despite Malema’s ousting, thousands of Youth Leaguers will continue to support him, remaining a challenge for Zuma, and Malema told South African television that "the gloves are off."

If so, Zuma may be in for a rough 2012. Last year, South African newspaper Mail & Guardian quoted Democratic Alliance leader Helen Zille as saying Zuma could not act against corruption as he himself was caught in a "corruption gridlock."

"Senior ANC members have so much dirt on each other, that they dare not take action against corruption," she wrote on her blog. "If one goes down, he will take the rest down with them…. Most people think Zuma needed to avoid jail so he could become president. Actually, the opposite is true. Zuma needed to become president so that he could avoid jail."

Despite Malema’s reputation as a radical, on one thing the public and the Youth League share a similar view: their grievances with the Zuma administration, which extend beyond corruption to issues of gross incompetence and even economic stagnation. South Africa, once hailed as a success story after it climbed out of apartheid to become Africa’s economic powerhouse and a leader in attracting foreign investment, now suffers from an abysmal youth unemployment rate. Last year, the OECD put it at nearly 50 percent, compared with 20 percent in similar emerging markets.

In the last two weeks, marchers have ventured through Sandton, an upscale suburb of Johannesburg, protesting joblessness and unnerving locals. Last week, a group in the country’s northwest gathered to protest funds they said had been destined for workers but were misallocated by officials.

Inefficiency is a hallmark of Zuma’s time in office.

On Nov. 4, Defense Secretary Mpumi Mpofu and the head of the South African Air Force both resigned after Deputy President Kgalema Motlanthe’s plane experienced mechanical problems that forced him to miss an official state visit to Finland. The jet repeatedly experienced difficulties while in flight, including engine trouble.

"It’s this kind of thing," Cargill says, "that is related maybe not to corruption, but to incompetence. They couldn’t keep the plane in the air even with one of the most important people in the country on it. And it contributes to a wider feeling that serious reform is needed."

Whether Zuma will crack down further remains to be seen, but his dismissals of the two cabinet members were arguably the most publicized and debated attack on corruption in the country in years. "To say it’s unprecedented is too strong," Lewis says, "but it’s not routine. We don’t have a history of corruption reform. We don’t have a history of presidents firing ministers or them falling on their swords English-style."

A less charitable explanation is that Zuma is simply sidelining his adversaries. "One of the fired ministers was not a politically powerful person, from what I understand on the internal dynamics of the party," notes Lewis.

Questions also remain about Zuma’s agreeing to the establishment of an inquiry committee into a multibillion-rand arms deal in which he himself has been implicated. With the two-year probe will come some fairly major investigations into the anti-corruption arms of the country’s law enforcement agencies, implying that the committee could ultimately be the biggest sign that Zuma is taking a harder stance on corruption.

The effects of his efforts won’t be evident for months. "There remains," Cargill says, "a lot of cynicism over the degree to which Zuma or the ANC hierarchy is really serious about clamping down on corruption, and this cynicism is founded in that this has been going on for years with very little being done about it."

In the meantime, keeping the country placated and stable might not be such a bad idea. On the morning of the Sandton demonstration, a South African businessman cruising toward the airport turned to those of us seated behind him.

"It’s a good day," he said, "to be getting out of Jo’burg."

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