The Cable

South Africa’s Zuma May Have Finally Met the Scandal That Brings Him Down

For South Africa’s polygamist, scandal-plagued president, charisma isn’t enough anymore.

South African President and ruling party African National Congress President Jacob Zuma attends an inter-faith prayer held to pray for him on May 14, 2017 in Durban, South Africa.  / AFP PHOTO / RAJESH JANTILAL        (Photo credit should read RAJESH JANTILAL/AFP/Getty Images)
South African President and ruling party African National Congress President Jacob Zuma attends an inter-faith prayer held to pray for him on May 14, 2017 in Durban, South Africa. / AFP PHOTO / RAJESH JANTILAL (Photo credit should read RAJESH JANTILAL/AFP/Getty Images)

South African President Jacob Zuma has managed to keep his job since 2009 despite constant controversy over his lifestyle as a polygamist, and allegations of money laundering and rape. Now, though, the Teflon president may have finally met his match.

The recent leak of more than 100,000 documents and emails suggesting deals made between his administration and an incredibly wealthy family has triggered a no-confidence vote in August, meaning Zuma’s improbable reign, slated to last until 2019, may finally come to a premature end.

The documents, released by non-profit group AmaBhungane, appeared to demonstrate that the rich business family Gupta made deals for government contracts worth hundreds of millions of dollars. According to the Guardian, there is an investigation into allies of Zuma who are linked to corruption at three state-owned companies, one of which is worth $411 million. Both Zuma and the Gupta family have denied all allegations.

A statement from the African National Congress, of which Zuma is the president, said the ANC “views these allegations in a very serious light as, if left unattended, they call into question the integrity and credibility of the government.”

Before he was elected, Jacob Zuma’s scandalous past made him an unlikely candidate to ever be president. However, as even the developed world has recently learned to its chagrin, scandal-ridden backgrounds and shady behavior doesn’t seem to have much effect on voters deep in the catnip of populism.

Zuma, like other presidents that came after him, won over the hearts and minds of South Africa through his charisma and his apolitical approach. A 2016 BBC biography on Zuma quotes a supporter: “he is a man who listens; he doesn’t take the approach of an intellectual king.” A man with little political experience and multiple controversial scandals became known as “the people’s president.” Zuma’s supporters were particularly attracted to his “traditional family values.”

They were not very traditional. In 2006, he was charged, but found not guilty, of raping an HIV-positive family friend. He has been married a total of six times and is the father of at least 21 children. One of his wives committed suicide in 2000. In 2016, Zuma was found to have dipped into public funds to redo his house.

But those were just warm up acts. In March, 2017, he fired the finance minister along with ten out of 35 cabinet members in the ANC. The firing of the finance minister was a result of an on-going rift between the two — and also, it seems, some string-pulling by the Guptas.

Many of President Zuma’s followers had encouraged him to replace the finance minister with someone who has a looser grip and will allow “radical transformation” in the country. (They seem to have gotten their way: Zuma eventually opted for a finance minister promising wealth redistribution and a leftist lurch.)

The other ten exiled cabinet members were supporters of the finance minister. With an already unsteady economy, his defenestrations caused growth to plummet and drove tens of thousands of people to protest. South Africa’s economy is in recession and unemployment is the highest it’s been in 14 years.

Zuma is blamed both by political analysts and the opposition party for breaking up the ANC, which has basically run South Africa unchallenged since the end of apartheid in 1994. Critics say that what’s left of the party doesn’t appear to have many internal checks or balances against corruption and patronage.

It’s not just Zuma’s problem, or South Africa’s, but will be detrimental to the whole region. In less than a decade, his actions have helped transform one of the few well-functioning countries in sub-Saharan Africa from role model to cautionary tale, deep in a political and economic hole that could take years to climb out of.

Photo credit: RAJESH JANTILAL/AFP/Getty Images

Jesse Chase-Lubitz is an American Society of Magazine Editors intern at Foreign Policy. She is currently studying history and evolutionary biology of the human species at Columbia. Before that, she worked as a professional ballet dancer in Chicago and Austin.

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