from Africa in Transition

Mugabe Falls as Zuma Struggles to Hold on

Zimbabwe's President Robert Mugabe (L) and South Africa's President Jacob Zuma during the opening of the 25th African Union summit in Johannesburg, June 14, 2015. Siphiwe Sibeko/Reuters

December 1, 2017

Zimbabwe's President Robert Mugabe (L) and South Africa's President Jacob Zuma during the opening of the 25th African Union summit in Johannesburg, June 14, 2015. Siphiwe Sibeko/Reuters
Blog Post

More on:

South Africa


Robert Mugabe

Jacob Zuma

Sub-Saharan Africa

Zimbabwe and South Africa are adjacent geographically and share a parallel history, but they are radically different polities. Not least, Zimbabwe is a tyranny, and is likely to remain so for the foreseeable future. South Africa is a democracy conducted according to the rule of law. Nevertheless, there are similarities, particularly between the two heads of state. In Zimbabwe, Robert Mugabe attempted to designate his wife, Grace, as his successor, while Jacob Zuma is sponsoring his ex-wife, Nkosanza Dlamini-Zuma, to succeed him as leader of the governing African National Congress (ANC) at the party’s national convention this month. In both cases, the choices appear to have been self-serving. Mugabe likely concluded that his wife could best protect his interests, and that of their children; in Zuma’s case, his critics plausibly view his motivation as avoiding criminal prosecution once out of office and protecting his considerable assets for his children. Both Mugabe and Zuma tried to insert their family members into the more or less mutually understood succession of a vice president to the presidency. In Mugabe’s case, his choice of Grace precipitated his removal from power by a military cabal within the governing movement, ZANU-PF. Will Mugabe’s downfall significantly influence the ANC party leadership race? It might.

Mugabe had appeared invincible up until the moment of his resignation. Jacob Zuma, whose patronage/clientage networks and mastery of the internal politics of the ANC has enabled him to survive despite his deep unpopularity, has also seemed untouchable. But Mugabe’s fate shows that the fall can come quickly. Unlike ZANU-PF, the ANC has a significant, democratic dimension. Zuma’s successor will not be determined by a military cabal as Mugabe’s was, but rather by a party convention that will operate according to understood procedures. Zuma’s vice president and Dlamini-Zuma’s chief rival for the party leadership is Cyril Ramaphosa, who has significant party support. (It should be noted that Dlamini-Zuma is a significant political force in her own right.) Mugabe left office in the face of the threat of impeachment, which would have stripped him of his pension and all the other emoluments of a former chief of state. There are numerous grounds for impeachment of Jacob Zuma, which becomes a potential political reality if he loses control of the party. Like Mugabe, Zuma would probably resign in the face of likely impeachment, after which he would have to face the hundreds of charges against him.

Will Zuma be able to continue his control of the ANC party machinery at the December party convention? If he can, then Dlamini-Zuma will probably win the party leadership, buying Zuma the ability to fill-out his presidential term, which ends in 2019. It is also likely that if the ANC wins the majority of seats in parliament in 2019, that Dlamini-Zuma will become the president. If however, deputy president Cyril Ramaphosa is elected party leader, Zuma will probably be required by the ANC to resign the presidency, though it might take some months for that drama to play out.

Creative Commons
Creative Commons: Some rights reserved.
This work is licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International (CC BY-NC-ND 4.0) License.
View License Detail