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Jacob Zuma’s Cabinet Reshuffle Bad News for South Africa

March 31, 2017

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As part of a wide-ranging cabinet reshuffle, President Jacob Zuma has fired highly respected Finance Minister Pravin Gordhan and his deputy, Mcebisi Jonas, along with other long-time stalwarts of the ruling African National Congress (ANC). Gordhan and Jonas had long opposed pet projects of the president, and Gordhan has become the symbol of reform and good governance even as the reputation of the governing ANC under Zuma’s leadership has declined into a miasma of charges of corruption and “state capture” by the president’s cronies. Many South Africans (including those within the ANC) will see Gordhan’s departure as a major setback for “reform” and the struggle against corruption. International investors already are not happy. The Rand fell dramatically yet again against the U.S. dollar. There is now a greater likelihood that the international credit rating agencies will downgrade South Africa’s sovereign debt to junk status.

The ANC was already divided over Zuma’s successor as party leader; the party leadership vote is expected to take place in December. Zuma and his faction’s preferred candidate is his ex-wife, Nkosanza Dlamini-Zuma; a “reform” faction candidate is the well-regarded deputy president, Cyril Ramaphosa, and there could be others. Looking toward December is part of the context of the cabinet reshuffle. Zuma apparently did not consult the traditional ANC party leadership over the reshuffle, an indication that it would have opposed him. It is still not clear whether Zuma has the support of his parliamentary partners, the South African Communist Party (SACP) and the Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU); Gordhan has had considerable support among both.

The South African opposition Democratic Alliance (DA) has now tabled a motion of no confidence in President Jacob Zuma in parliament. If it is successful, Zuma would immediately lose the presidency. Julius Malema’s Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) supports the motion. The other opposition parties will almost certainly support the motion. The parliamentary arithmetic is straightforward. Parliament has four hundred seats. A successful vote of no-confidence requires 201 votes. The ANC has 249 seats (COSATU and SACP MP’s vote as ANC). All of the opposition parties have 151. To oust Zuma a no-confidence motion would require the votes of about fifty ANC MP’s.

Despite the outrage in the aftermath of the Zuma cabinet reshuffle even inside the ANC, it is unlikely that a DA motion of no confidence will succeed. In the past, when the DA has proposed such a motion, even when supported by the “radical” EFF, the ANC has closed ranks, protecting the party and ensuring Zuma’s position. Since the days of Nelson Mandela, the ANC has prioritized party unity. The DA continues to be perceived as the party of whites, other minorities, and the privileged in South Africa, while the ANC (despite its multiracial principles and history) is seen as “black,” “pro-poor,” and the leader of the successful fight against apartheid. (Black South African’s constitute about 80 percent of the country’s population, and most of it is poor.) The EFF is something of a wild card. Its “pro-poor” rhetoric goes beyond the ANC, but Malema’s personal hatred for Zuma is visceral and unabated. He is prepared to cooperate on occasion with the DA.

Nevertheless, given the realities of racially based identity politics, a no-confidence vote will likely fail. Only if a significant portion of the ANC leadership concludes that keeping Zuma in the presidency is electoral poison might the no-confidence measure succeed. We may know soon; the party’s highest leadership body, the National Executive Committee may meet over the weekend of April 1-2. However, if such a meeting is postponed, or if it takes no significant action, Zuma’s short-term chances of weathering his current political crisis are improved.