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Zuma Has Fallen
South Africa's president weathered scandal after scandal while driving his country’s economy and reputation into the ground. His luck has finally run out.
When it came time for Jacob Zuma to leave office, he was prepared for the fight. The days leading up to his departure on Wednesday night were emblematic of his nine-year tenure as president of South Africa: tense, dramatic, and filled with gallows humor. Political cartoonists had a field day, and Twitter competed to name the best Zuma recall movies (“Swindler’s List” and “The Lying King” were favorites). In the end, South Africans were reduced to mere spectators — waiting to hear of the fate of a man who had dominated headlines for close to two decades.
On radio call-in shows, listeners were adamant that Zuma should not be offered immunity. They argued that nothing less than jail time would suffice for a man who seemed to have reveled in thumbing his nose at the public’s expressions of concern over his conduct.
Even Zuma’s party, the African National Congress, seemed incapable of talking him into a quiet retirement. The party that had for so long sheltered him in the face of everything from rape charges to corruption allegations seemed helpless in the face of his intransigence. Senior leaders couldn’t shake their subservience to him. Even after informing the nation of their decision to recall him, the ANC’s leadership seemed loath to implement it. As the newly elected secretary-general of the ANC, Ace Magashule, announced that the party would recall Zuma, he couldn’t bring himself to say when it would happen.
The party that had once prided itself on being a movement of the people seemed lost. Along with the rest of the country, the ANC was being taken for a ride, and Zuma seemed to be the only person in the nation who knew where things were headed. That has been the story of Zuma’s presidency.
Under Zuma’s watch, the economy shrank, unemployment spiraled, and violent crime surged. His nine years in office were disastrous for South Africa’s international reputation. Zuma has been embroiled in scandals for much of his time in politics, keeping the country’s courts busy. In 2005, he was sacked as the deputy president of the country because of his involvement in a scandal in which he was accused of taking kickbacks from European arms manufacturers. The president at the time, Thabo Mbeki, fired him from his government role, but Zuma remained deputy president of the ANC — a party role that would allow him to live another day.
Later that year, the daughter of an ANC party comrade accused Zuma of raping her at his home in Johannesburg and the case went to trial. He denied raping her and told the court they’d had consensual sex. He added that although he was aware of her HIV-positive status, he had chosen not to use a condom and had instead taken a shower afterward in an effort to avoid contracting the virus. Zuma was widely derided for his recklessness, and South Africa’s best-known political cartoonist, Zapiro, has included a showerhead in illustrations of Zuma ever since.
During the rape trial, thousands of Zuma supporters gathered outside the courtroom each day. His accuser had to enter under police guard because of the intimidation and harassment she faced from Zuma’s supporters. Many claimed Zuma was being targeted because of his ethnicity. They suggested it was time for a Zulu president to rule both the ANC and the country. People of Zulu ethnicity represent approximately 20 percent of South Africa’s population, and numerically they are the largest ethnic group in the country.
This sort of ethnic nationalism was unprecedented in ANC politics. Throughout its history, the ANC had derided “tribalism” and sought to unite black South Africans of all ethnic groups and also welcomed whites and Indians committed to the fight against apartheid. Zuma was the first leader to openly mobilize support along ethnic lines.
In 2006, he was acquitted of rape charges, and by 2007 he was on the comeback trail. Zuma executed his plan to take power with military precision. This should have come as no surprise. In the 1980s, he had served as the chief of the Intelligence Department at the ANC-in-exile’s headquarters in Zambia.
Zuma was elected president of the ANC in December 2007 in a bitter and bruising battle against Mbeki, the man who had sacked him just a few years earlier. The following year, the ANC recalled Mbeki, triggering his resignation as president of the country.
Zuma bested his opponent in 2007 by gathering a coalition of the wounded. At the time, there were various factions within the ANC that felt aggrieved by Mbeki’s leadership style and by his economic conservatism. Many on the left within the party believed that in their haste to appease the markets and encourage international investment, the ANC’s leaders had conceded too much terrain to big business in the years following apartheid.
Zuma was known as an affable but flawed man. Union leaders and young radicals opposed to Mbeki — men such as Julius Malema, who was then the head of the ANC’s Youth League, and Zwelinzima Vavi, who headed the Congress of South African Trade Unions at the time — saw the man they were installing as malleable. They hoped Zuma would promote pro-labor and pro-poor policies, so they struck a Faustian bargain. Despite his obvious personal shortcomings, and the significant political liabilities he carried, they agreed to put him in power if he allowed them to run economic policy.
Zuma was known as a peacemaker — a man who listened carefully and was always prepared to craft a solution guided not by ideology but by his political instincts. In the past, these instincts had been used in service of the fight against apartheid. Zuma had earned his credibility by handling sensitive negotiations with Zulu nationalists in the violent region of KwaZulu in the 1980s and early 1990s. After liberation came, Zuma was able to use his skills to achieve less noble ends.
The very traits that Zuma’s kingmakers found attractive a decade ago have come back to haunt them. His tenure as president has been driven by a desire to stay in power no matter the cost. Both Malema and Vavi were expelled from their positions when they began to question Zuma, and their organizations became mouthpieces for the president as he installed loyalists to head them.
Despite his political survival instincts, Zuma has made a number of miscalculations. He insisted on building a palatial rural home in his village of Nkandla. Its proportions were so massive and the cost overruns so significant that it became an albatross around his neck. In a country characterized by grinding poverty, the opulence of his taxpayer-funded country house was not a good look. Zuma also became embroiled in a feud with one of the most popular public figures in the country: the public protector, Thuli Madonsela, who conducted a series of damning investigations into his executive misconduct, turning her into a national hero. In the end, however, it was Zuma’s refusal to dissociate himself from the notorious Gupta family, which was accused of numerous acts of financial impropriety, that proved his undoing.
His relationship with the Guptas — friends he refused to disavow — was so conflicted that it led to the resurrection of the old Marxist term “state capture” to describe both the looting of state resources and the use of undue personal influence to corrupt state decision-making processes.
Zuma destroyed public confidence in the country’s civil service. The investigation into the building of his Nkandla palace demonstrated that public servants had been pressured to bend rules, approve bogus claims, and use contractors that hadn’t been selected properly. It implicated them in decisions that were illegal.
This is especially unfortunate in a country like South Africa that desperately needed to restore citizens’ faith in the government bureaucracy. When apartheid ended, the state was by far the largest employer. Under white minority rule, the racist National Party government had dispensed its largess unequally and unfairly, ensuring that blacks were denied access to key resources while supporting the advancement of whites. Under the new democratic dispensation, the government was supposed to become a standard-bearer of equality, demonstrating respect and providing dignity to those who had been denied everything from water to education. Instead, it ended up enriching bureaucrats and politicians while failing to deliver the basic services it might have been capable of providing had some officials not been siphoning off millions of rands.
Zuma’s most lasting legacy is the acrimony and aggression he introduced to South African politics. Zuma marshaled a shadow army of online bots and fake revolutionaries who would often march in his defense. In the last few years, young people claiming to be “ANC veterans” have been regularly bused into key events where Zuma felt threatened. To real veterans, who genuinely fought in the liberation struggle that ended 30 years ago, these rent-a-crowds with their army fatigues and baby-faces are an insult. And because they were not members of any political party and were in the pay of the Gupta family, they were accountable to no one and acted without regard for generally acceptable standards of political behavior.
By privatizing his support, and by surrounding himself with a coterie of corrupt ANC leaders who had as much to lose as he did, Zuma made political brinkmanship the norm in South Africa’s political culture. His brazenness introduced unnecessary tension and anxiety into the political process and often forced his opponents to use increasingly confrontational and desperate tactics themselves.
By the end, faced with mounting scandals and having lost the confidence of the public — Afrobarometer reported that Zuma had the lowest approval ratings of any president since it began conducting its survey in 2000 — it became untenable for Zuma to stay. The ANC’s leaders feared that voters would punish the party at the polls in next year’s presidential election if they didn’t ditch Zuma. And so, earlier this week, the very same ANC leaders who had installed, enabled, and benefited from Zuma’s corrupt rule decided to cut him loose.
By the time they had reluctantly made their decision, it was no surprise that Zuma stalled. After all, he had everything to lose. Zuma needed his job as president in order to keep up the lifestyle to which he has become accustomed. Only when the home of his chief political allies and enablers, the Guptas, was raided by police at dawn on Wednesday did it become clear that Zuma’s grip was beginning to slip; by evening, he had resigned.
The Zuma era may have one silver lining. His penchant for looting and mismanagement has unwittingly strengthened the indomitable will of South Africa’s more than 55 million residents. Their vocal refusal to permit corrupt leaders has been propelled by the idea that politics is too important to leave to politicians and by regular citizens who know they deserve better than leaders like those Zuma gave them.
Cyril Ramaphosa — the man who succeeds him — will have a much shorter leash with which to hang himself.