from Africa in Transition

'Don't Underestimate Zuma'

September 13, 2017

South Africa's President Jacob Zuma with former African Union chairperson Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma and South Africa's Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa at the ANC 5th National Policy Conference in South Africa, July 5, 2017. Siphiwe Sibeko/Reuters
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For those in South Africa and elsewhere devoted to the rule of law, the supremacy of constitutional institutions over individual personalities, and repelled by corruption, South Africa’s President Jacob Zuma is odious. He has been credibly accused of being a sexual predator and has more than seven hundred outstanding indictments for corruption to his name. Repellent though he may be, he is capable of exceptional charm in personal interactions and incredible political skill. Among the right thinking, the sooner the governing African National Congress (ANC) shows Zuma the door, the better. 

Hence, the South African Institute of Race Relations (IRR) has performed an important service with the reminder that “Detractors Underestimate Master Tactician Zuma at Their Peril,” the title of its Monday op-ed in Business Day, a major South African newspaper with national circulation.  

It argues that Zuma continues to hold the balance of power within the ANC and within the government, and he remains popular among ANC supporters, according to polls. His ex-wife and designated successor, Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, also polls well. ANC sentiment for party unity benefits him, and, with his outstanding tactical skills, he may well be able to steer the ANC to victory in the national elections of 2019.

IRR also makes the uncomfortable point that Zuma’s “system,” based on patronage, corruption, and populism (though the piece does not use those words) may outlive him. For that reason, IRR argues, the focus should be on institutions and systems, rather than personalities.

For right-thinking people, Brexit was unimaginable. So, too, was President Donald Trump’s election, widely regarded as odious on policy and personal grounds in ways similar to President Zuma. Frans Cronje, CEO of IRR and author of the op-ed, reminds us not “to underestimate Zuma;” he and Madam Dlamini-Zuma may be around for a while.

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