Jacob Zuma’s Undoing

South African Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa (left) and President Jacob Zuma stand at the opening of Parliament in Cape Town. Mike Hutchings/Reuters

The scandal-plagued leader’s removal could set the party of Nelson Mandela on a path toward reestablishing South Africa as a role model for the rest of the continent.

February 13, 2018

South African Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa (left) and President Jacob Zuma stand at the opening of Parliament in Cape Town. Mike Hutchings/Reuters
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Amid growing pressure for his removal, South African President Jacob Zuma appears to be running down the clock on his leadership. The ruling African National Congress (ANC) all but demanded his resignation on February 13 following days of closed-door negotiations. Zuma has sought to attach conditions before he would resign, however, and faced with such intransigence, the ANC is moving toward a no-confidence vote in parliament.  

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Zuma’s eventual removal, compulsory or not, will set the party of Nelson Mandela on a path away from the cronyism and corruption associated with Zuma and toward reestablishing South Africa as a role model for the rest of the continent. The country boasts the fifth-largest population in Africa, totaling more than fifty-four million, is the continent’s most advanced economy, with a gross domestic product of over $750 billion (PPP), and maintains an outsized influence over the growth of democracy across Africa. While its politics and economy suffered under the Zuma-led ANC, South Africa’s civil society, media, and judiciary proved their mettle, standing up to the corrupt practices of Zuma time and again.

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South Africa

Jacob Zuma

Southern Africa

Unlike Zimbabwean leader Robert Mugabe’s overthrow by a military coup last year, Zuma’s impending departure from the presidency follows South African law and party practice (as did the departure of his predecessor, Thabo Mbeki, in 2009). Zuma’s expected successor, recently elected ANC leader Cyril Ramaphosa, is an architect of the transition to nonracial democracy and was a close associate of Mandela. He is also a millionaire whom the party perceives as immune to the blandishments of personal corruption that disfigured the Zuma administration.

Zuma’s ouster has been Ramaphosa’s first challenge as leader of the ANC. He was up against not only Zuma, but also longtime allies of the president, including some provincial governors and Zuma’s former wife, Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, who are part of Zuma’s patronage network. While there was broad consensus among the South African public that Zuma had to go, the party leadership was divided, reflecting its alienation from its base. The ANC’s recall of Zuma preserves at least a fig leaf of party unity and must be counted as an early victory for Ramaphosa.

A Party Divided

The ANC, traditionally the voice of South Africa’s black majority, has dominated the country’s electoral politics since the end of apartheid in 1994. The party played a dominant role in drafting the new constitution, which enshrines the protection of human rights, the rule of law, and the independence of the judiciary. Under the leadership of Mandela and later Thabo Mbeki, the ANC dismantled formal apartheid structures in education and medical care and provided housing, water, and electricity to millions. Nevertheless, levels of black poverty have not significantly improved, notwithstanding the emergence of a small black elite tied closely to the party. These problems persisted into Zuma’s tenure and the party became mired in greater scandal than in the past. It is increasingly alienated from its traditional base in urban townships and among the rural poor.

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The party is a “broad church,” reflecting a wide diversity of views. With respect to addressing pervasive black poverty, one of the ANC’s most fundamental goals, there are two prevailing positions. One, associated with Zuma, advocates redistribution of wealth, the disproportionate majority of which is still held by white South Africans. The rural poor generally identifies with this platform, which leans toward traditional African identity. The other, associated with Ramaphosa, looks to encourage economic growth through traditional liberal, capitalist means, a tide that its advocates say would raise all boats. Many from the urban, black middle class, who typically support globalization and the international financial system, embrace this view. Neither side has seen much success; there has been little redistribution of wealth and economic growth has stalled since the global downturn in 2008.

[The ANC] is increasingly alienated from its traditional base in urban townships and among the rural poor.

Almost three decades after apartheid, decision-making within the ANC still reflects its origins as a liberation movement: It is the party’s National Executive Committee (NEC), not a South African government entity, which makes executive decisions—usually by consensus—and ultimately directs government policy. Day-to-day leadership is provided by the so-called Top Six, the party leader and five other senior party officials. Ramaphosa, whose supporters appear to hold a slight majority in both the NEC and the Top Six, finally prevailed upon holdouts in the NEC to recall the president.

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Jacob Zuma

Southern Africa

The ANC’s partners in parliament are the South African Communist Party (SACP) and the Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU), which fall under the “broad tent” of former liberation organizations, and are usually counted among Ramaphosa’s allies. Had Ramaphosa lost the contest for party leadership, there were fears that the SACP and COSATU would withdraw from the “triple alliance.” In addition, well-organized opposition to the ANC has come in recent years from the Democratic Alliance (DA) on the right and the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) on the left. The opposition successfully demanded that Zuma not deliver the annual state of the nation address, which was accordingly postponed. Support for the EFF, DA, and other opposition parties has built up as the ANC under Zuma fell into disfavor; in the 2016 local government elections, it lost control of all major cities, with the exception of Durban. And if the ANC loses its parliamentary majority in 2019, the door will be opened for a coalition government led by the DA, the EFF, and possibly other small parties.

A Symbol of Corruption

Zuma had been able to hang on for almost a decade in the face of growing unpopularity—he has survived eight no-confidence votes—by establishing effective patronage networks among party activists. In elections, South Africans vote for a party, not an individual, and the higher up a party member is on a party’s electoral list, the more likely it is that member will make it into parliament. A party’s leader and those around him ultimately determine where an individual is placed on that list, a system that allowed Zuma to exert enormous influence over ANC members. He nearly succeeded in managing the election of his former wife as party leader in the December 2017 electoral conference, and his patronage networks will likely continue to challenge Ramaphosa after he is gone.

After his re-election in 2014, Zuma, bedeviled by persistent accusations of corruption, took to lashing out at the media and the judiciary, and darkly hinted that foreign powers, widely understood to include the United States, sought regime change. His ministerial appointments were increasingly based on loyalty to his patronage network rather than competency. The prevailing symbol of corruption under Zuma’s leadership was his relationship with the Gupta brothers, a prominent South Asian business family who critics charge had undue influence over personnel decisions and state contracts.

Ramaphosa’s victory in the ANC party leadership race reflected widespread disillusionment with Zuma within the party.

Ramaphosa’s victory in the ANC party leadership race reflected widespread disillusionment with Zuma within the party and disgust with his crony-style government. Many ANC delegates feared that a Dlamini-Zuma victory would be a continuation of Zuma’s corruption and patronage and have baleful consequences for the party in the national elections of 2019. The ANC’s defeat in the last local government elections also served as an omen of what would come if Zuma retained his influence in the party.

Next Moves

Once out of office, Zuma faces potential prosecution on more than seven hundred counts of corruption. Many South Africans believe that Zuma sponsored the candidacy of his ex-wife to secure protection from prosecution. Ramaphosa and others in the party have denied that immunity from prosecution is on the table; South Africa’s lively civil society and independent judiciary would likely make such a deal difficult.

To maintain ANC electoral viability, Ramaphosa needs Zuma’s exit from the presidency, sooner rather than later and in a manner that preserves party unity. Ramaphosa has at least partly achieved this by convincing the NEC to vote with him on Zuma’s recall. The true test of party unity and Ramaphosa’s “new look” ANC, however, will come in the 2019 national elections. It remains to be seen whether the ANC or the opposition parties benefited more from Zuma’s departure. Ramaphosa played a major role in setting up his resignation, and the opposition parties forcefully and publicly drove the call for Zuma to leave. While public revulsion at Zuma boosted the opposition parties, now that he is on his way out, some opposition voters are likely to return to the ANC.

Of greater significance than the outcome of the political maneuvering is that the manner of Zuma’s departure—one carried out according to both the rule of law and ANC party policy—highlights the continued strength of South Africa’s democratic foundation.

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