- By Robbie GramerRobbie Gramer is a staff writer at Foreign Policy. He writes for The Cable, FP’s real-time take on all things, well, foreign policy. Before he joined FP in 2016, he used to think in a tank, managing the NATO portfolio at the Atlantic Council for three years. He’s a graduate of American University’s School of International Service, where he studied international relations and European affairs. He has lived in both Washington and Brussels, though he grew up in Idaho and Oregon, so he’s a West Coaster at heart. When he’s not busy reporting, he’s probably busy starting three new books before he has finished the last one or planning a trip to a national park he hasn’t visited yet.
Political drama isn’t a U.S. monopoly these days. In South Africa, a scandal involving the government and a powerful business family could usher in the downfall of the embattled president. And in a country where corruption is the flavor of the day, South Africa’s independent public protector watchdog seems one of the few bright lights in an otherwise dark political storm, offering a much-needed example these days of a state institution that’s strong enough to resist political interference.
On Wednesday, a damning 355-page corruption report penned by former public protector Thuli Madonsela dropped like a bombshell. The report outlined a unique type of deeply rooted corruption known as “state capture,” where business moguls get the government to shape emerging laws, financial regulations, and rules of the game to their advantage.
It confirmed what many in the country already suspected: A powerful family of Indian immigrants, the Guptas, were the shadow power behind President Jacob Zuma and certain members of his cabinet.
In one instance, the Guptas — seeking preferential treatment for their businesses — offered a hopefully pliant deputy minister his boss’s job a full two weeks before Zuma even fired the minister. Mcebisi Jonas, the deputy finance minister in question, called the offer a “mockery” of democracy and told press he rejected the offer outright.
According to the report, Ajay Gupta called Jonas to a meeting and “indicated that National Treasury were a stumbling block to the family’s business ambitions. As part of the offer to become a Finance Minister, Mr Jonas would be expected to remove the current Director General of National Treasury and other key members of Executive Management.”
The Guptas left South Africa in April as the scandal began to unfold.
The report sparked a political firestorm on Wednesday and Thursday, as opposition leaders and thousands of protestors took the streets, calling on Zuma to resign. Zuma “must now be removed from office because he’s not fit to occupy that office,” Economic Freedom Fighters leader Julius Malema told party supporters during one rally.
Zuma is no stranger to corruption allegations; in April a South African court announced the president should face not one or two, but 783 charges of corruption, racketeering, and fraud. The “State of Capture” report, which Zuma tried to block in court from being publicized until mounting political pressure forced him to relent on Wednesday, could be the last straw for his hopes of clinging to power.
And to many, the report’s release also showcased the enduring strength of the country’s Public Protector Office.
“I think that there is a lot to be optimistic about right now in terms of South Africa’s democratic resilience. The judiciary has somehow managed to maintain its independence, for the most part,” Chloë McGrath, visiting fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Africa Center told Foreign Policy. “Despite the extent of state capture, strong, independent institutions are still holding out,” she added.
She said that the office represented by Madonsela, the public protector who wrote the bombshell report, has lived up to its intended mission: safeguarding democracy “following the evils of the apartheid era.” The Public Protector’s Office has no prosecutorial power, but wields influence by conducting high-profile investigations and recommending remedial actions for the government to implement.
In another promising sign, the country’s National Prosecuting Authority dropped charges against Finance Minister Pravin Gordhan that many viewed as a trumped-up political maneuver on the part of Zuma. The charges came after a bizarre incident in which Zuma sacked Finance Minister Nhlanhla Nene, appointed a new minister, and then installed Gordhan just four days later to rescue a plummeting rand.
As calls for Zuma’s resignation reach a crescendo, it leaves his party in dire straits. The African National Congress, which has been in power since the end of apartheid in 1994, is struggling to retain its hold over an increasingly disenchanted electorate.
The ANC, which faced a wake-up call after losing local elections in August, is weakening and becoming increasingly fissiparous as South Africa limps through the corruption scandal and economic woes.
Zuma has been silent since the report’s release, though he did find time to visit Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe on Thursday. But his days in office may be numbered.
It’s “unlikely that Zuma will survive this scandal, but the real question is how long will it take to get rid of him,” said McGrath.
Photo credit: Charlie Shoemaker/Getty Images
Correction, Nov. 4, 2016: Jacob Zuma sacked Finance Minister Nhlanhla Nene before appointing a new minister and then installing Pravin Gordhan four days later. A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that Gordhan was fired and immediately rehired as finance minister.