South Africa’s President Jacob Zuma has often been accused of corruption. But, until recently his hold on the governing African National Congress (ANC), with its huge parliamentary majority, has ensured that he could weather political storms. However, his recent missteps have eroded his support within the party. There is speculation that the party could remove him as party leader which would likely result in his resigning the presidency. While such speculation is premature, he is certainly politically damaged. The greatest threat to Zuma’s political future is now from within his own political party, rather than from the opposition.
Zuma’s current round of troubles began in December 2015 when he abruptly fired his well-regarded finance minister, Nhlanhla Nene, and appointed a non-entity in his place. South African financial markets swooned, and Zuma was forced to back down, fire his newly appointed choice, and appoint Pravin Gordhan, who had previously served in that position. In February 2016, after months of insisting that public expenditure on his private estate, Nkandla, were justified on the grounds of national security, he reversed himself during legal proceedings before the Constitutional Court, South Africa’s highest. But, his reversal came after the ANC had defended him for months in parliament. Earlier this month, the High Court ruled that the Zuma government acted improperly in failing to enforce warrants against Sudan’s Omar al-Bashir when he was in South Africa, raising the possibility that the president is in contempt of court. Finally, Deputy Finance Minister Mcebisi Jonas, has gone public saying that three brothers of Indian origin—the Guptas—offered him the finance minister position before Zuma fired Nene. There are additional accusations that the Gupta brothers have been involved in high-level and para-statal appointments, that, in effect, Zuma has allowed them to “capture the state.” Jonas’ revelation would appear to be the “smoking gun.”
Presumably, the Guptas will claim that they were acting on Zuma’s behalf. With respect to ministerial appointments, the South African president may appoint to his cabinet anybody he pleases, with no requirement that he consult. So the Guptas’ involvement with the finance minister position is not illegal. However, it does violate ANC policy and regulation, and as a party member Zuma is subject to party discipline. High level appointments are within the purview of the ANC deployment committee. So, Zuma is in trouble because the Gupta brothers usurped party functions.
The three Gupta brothers and their families migrated to South Africa from India just before and after the 1994 transition to non-racial democracy. Their seemingly enormous wealth is based on Sahara Computers and Oakbay Investments, the latter of which includes significant interests in mining, real estate, and media. A prominent business partner is Duduzane Zuma, President Zuma’s son. The Gupta brothers are very close to the president, even on one occasion using a military airport for their private purposes. The media reports that they asked for South African diplomatic passports because they travel so frequently with the president. Thus far, President Zuma has refused to explain his relationship with the Gupta family, though he has acknowledged they have helped his son. Jonas’ revelation ties the Gupta brothers to the firing of Nene, an act that at the time seemed inexplicable. The South African media speculates that the Gupta brothers embarked on “state capture” to ensure favorable access of a variety of government contracts. Whether true of not, the story is widely believed, and many South Africans see the Gupta brothers as the face of Zuma government corruption.
The ANC’s National Executive Committee meets March 19-20. It is no longer in Zuma’s pocket. Its agenda will include the president’s relationship with the Gupta family, according to the South African media. The credible Daily Maverick, citing unnamed sources, reports that within the ANC there is sentiment for a wide ranging discussion of the president’s conduct and his breach of constitutional duties. This discussion would include possible ANC disciplinary action and whether parliament should impeach him. Others believe that such consideration should be delayed until there is a final ruling by the Constitutional Court on Nkandla. Of the two scenarios, the latter is the more likely.