Faced with losing a scheduled parliamentary no-confidence vote on February 15, Jacob Zuma resigned from the presidency of South Africa in a broadcast to the nation in the evening on February 14. The governing African National Congress (ANC) and its large parliamentary majority moved quickly to elect deputy president and current party leader Cyril Ramaphosa to state presidency. As Zuma said in his less-than-dignified address to the nation, he resigned only because the ANC turned against him and insisted on it. The party concluded that Zuma had become too great a political liability as it looked toward upcoming elections in 2019.
Zuma’s administration had become a byword for corruption, cronyism, and bad administration. Despite his populist rhetoric designed to appeal to the poor, virtually nothing was done to ameliorate their lot. His nativist style as well as his bad governance increasingly repelled South Africa’s growing urban black middle class. South Africa’s international reputation went into free-fall under him. Investment dried up, and the value of the national currency fell. In a major wakeup call, the ANC lost control of all of South Africa’s major cities except Durban in the 2016 local elections. Without change, the party feared that it might lose its parliamentary majority in the elections of 2019. In the December 2017 party convention, the ANC therefore chose Cyril Ramaphosa as party leader, rather than Zuma’s preferred candidate, his former wife Nkosanza Dlamini-Zuma. (ANC party rules apparently precluded Zuma from running again.) Thereafter, Zuma’s departure from the state presidency became highly likely: the tradition is that the party leader and the state president are the same person. To preserve ANC party unity, Ramaphosa sought to ease Zuma out in a dignified way. Zuma refused to cooperate and fought resignation until it became clear that he had lost parliament’s, and more importantly, the ANC’s, confidence. In that way only, Zuma’s departure resembled that of Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe, who also refused to resign following a coup by his own party until the Zimbabwe parliament was about to impeach him.
As leader of the ANC and state president, Zuma governed through the creation of patronage/clientage networks greased by corruption. If South Africa’s constitutional institutions appeared to get in the way, he tried to circumvent them. However, he regularly failed. Such was the strength of South Africa’s constitutional institutions, its independent judiciary, the vigilance of the parliamentary opposition, and the activism of civil society, Zuma, in so many ways a disaster for South Africa, was a challenge, but never an existential threat, to the country’s democracy and rule of law.
However, Zuma was a threat to the ideals of the ANC. His leadership through patronage/clientage networks, his cronyism, his self-centeredness, and his appeal to an atavistic Zulu tribalism seriously undermined the party’s founding principles of non-racial, non-sexist democracy. Hence, especially in urban areas, the ANC’s core constituency increasingly stayed home on election-day or drifted over to one of the opposition parties. Cyril Ramaphosa and other “reformers” within the ANC have a big job to restore national confidence in the ANC as a democratic movement devoted to the rule of law.
Ramaphosa’s next step will be to deliver the state of the nation address, which resembles the U.S. state of the union address. Soon thereafter he will unveil his proposed budget. Because Zuma resigned office rather than being forced out by parliament, Ramaphosa inherits his cabinet but is free to make changes. South Africans anticipate that a Ramaphosa government will be technically far more competent than its predecessor, and organized around promoting economic growth. Ramaphosa is also expected to move quickly against the notorious nests of corruption. He nevertheless faces serious challenges. If South Africa’s democratic institutions have successfully weathered Zuma, gross economic inequality, largely parallel to racial divisions, remains. Most South Africans are poor, by some measures poorer than they were the decade that apartheid ended, though the small white minority is probably richer than it was when Mandela came to office. Ramaphosa seems to recognize the central importance of higher rates of economic growth as the way to address poverty. He also seems to understand that state redistribution of wealth, such as happened in Mugabe’s Zimbabwe, would destroy Africa’s most sophisticated economy and condemn most South Africans to deeper poverty. The question remains whether he can persuade South Africans to be patient; up to now, they have been. That could be a source of encouragement.