Jacob Zuma and South Africa: A sinking Presidency

In 2008, the President of South Africa, Thabo Mbeki, was ushered out of power after a highly publicised struggle with his former Deputy President Jacob Zuma, the leader of the African National Congress (ANC). The ANC, the dominant South African party since the election of Nelson Mandela in 1994, quickly propelled the controversial figure to executive power after its anticipated general election victory in 2009. Now in his second term, with the next elections scheduled for 2019, President Jacob Zuma is in a position very reminiscent of that of his predecessor. Jacob Zuma’s contentious administration of the country has also highlighted the growing difficulties faced by Mandela’s Rainbow nation and the growing factionalism of the ANC.

Jacob Zuma has always been a highly divisive and provocative figure. The President has often been belittled for his lack of formal education and his rural background. But he has however formed a reputation as a “seasoned political street fighter” and a “ruthless politician blessed with charisma and a thick skin that has helped him shrug off numerous scandals”. As deputy president under the administration of Thabo Mbeki, he was un-ceremoniously sacked in 2005 after his former financial adviser, Schabir Shaik, was found guilty of soliciting bribes for the benefit of the ANC politician. In 2006, Jacob Zuma himself faced charges relating to corruption allegations and was put on trial accused of raping a young female family friend. He was acquitted of the rape charge but drew scorn from health advocates accusing him of undermining years of HIV prevention campaigning after it was revealed that the woman was HIV positive, and he declared that a shower after intercourse minimized the risk of contraction. The statement was even more damning as Jacob Zuma had served as the head of the national South African Aids council, and as the country faces “the biggest and most high profile HIV epidemic in the world, with an estimated 6.3 million people living with HIV in 2013”.

His political knack was however evident when still dogged by allegations of corruption he succeeded in orchestrating a major political comeback by trouncing President Mbeki for the ANC presidency in 2007. Riding on a wave of disaffection towards Mbeki, deemed at the time aloof to the problems of South Africans and drifting towards authoritarianism, he combined forces with the powerful trade unions and was able to galvanise his traditional rural powerbase creating a major political upset. In 2007, he was however again indicted on charges of fraud and corruption centred on a 1999 arms deal. The prosecution dropped these charges only weeks before the 2009 general elections while ironically facing accusations, as did former President Mbeki, of abusing its power to discredit the ANC leader. Jacob Zuma’s Presidency has continued the trends of old, as accusations of corruption, cronyism and more recently authoritarianism have plagued his administration. However, recent events have drastically weakened his position and highlighted his political vulnerability, the same political vulnerability that out-did his predecessor.

Jacob Zuma’s second term has been marred by a quick succession of scandals and accusations of ineptitude. At the end of his first term in 2014, the President first faced serious allegations of miss-appropriation of funds, when it was revealed that the public purse has been used to upgrade the president’s rural residence in Nkandla, KwaZulu – Natal, to the tune of $23 million. This figure seems excessive when compared to the $4 million spent on private residences for the two previous Presidents: Nelson Mandela and Thabo Mbeki. The highly regarded Public Protector, Thuli Madonsela, even went as far as accusing the president of “un-ethical conduct”.

However Jacob Zuma’s vows on Nkandla are paltry compared to the blunders committed in the last few months. Indeed, since October the administration has seen its credibility plummet and opposition towards it take ever more important proportions. The president faced the largest student demonstrations since the end of Apartheid, as students rallied against planned increases of between 10% – 12% in tuition fees. Highly-publicised protests spread throughout the major campuses, and violent confrontation with police was reported in front of the parliament building in Cape Town and on the steps of the Union building in Pretoria. Faced with such virulent opposition, the administration was forced to backtrack and cancel the tuition fee increase.

However, these protests have much more serious ramifications for Jacob Zuma and the ANC especially. The protesters are of a generation born mostly into a post-apartheid South Africa and have grown disillusioned with the old guard of the ANC, dismissing their liberation credentials as irrelevant. The so-called “Born Free” generation also represents 40% of the population and a sizable chunk of the electorate. This young demographic failed to make a lasting impact in the last elections in 2014, as only 1 in 3 of the 1.9 million voters aged 18-19 were registered to vote. However, taking into account the un-popularity of Zuma, this growing segment of the electorate will most certainly become the kingmakers in any subsequent general election. This should worry the ANC, as the student protests highlighted the extent to which the party and the current administration are associated with corruption and in-efficiency. More troubling is the extent to which the notion of Mandela’s Rainbow-Nation is beginning to appear as a discredited idea, especially within the younger segments of the growing black South African middle class.

Under such a tense and fragile political setting, the recent blunders of Jacob Zuma seem even more dangerous and aggravating. At the time where the South African GDP is expected to only increase by 1.4% and the official un-employment rate stands at a staggering 25%, but could be as high as 35%, Jacob Zuma’s musical chairs with the respected ministry of finance have had dangerous consequences. In December, the president shocked the country and its financial backers by sacking the highly respected minister of Finance, Nhlanhla Nene, who had been credited with pushing back gross government over-spending. Nene had opposed the president on different counts, such as a $66 Billion nuclear deal with Russia brokered personally by the president, and by attempting to control the disastrous finances of the state owned South African Airways, whose board is chaired by a close personal friend of the president. The veteran minister was replaced by an un-known back-bencher, a move that stunned the markets as the Rand nose-dived against the dollar, shaking investor confidence in the South African economy. The situation was only resolved when Zuma was forced to dismiss his second finance minister and install Pravin Gordhan, a highly respected former Finance Minister. Indeed, Zuma’s abrupt decision to dismiss Nene had led him on a collision course with the top brass of the ANC, which was forced to intervene with the Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa rumoured to have threatened to resign if the decision was not reversed. 

These successions of crises have endangered Jacob Zuma’s position. A number of prominent ANC members, including former Health Minister Barbara Hogan, have publicly criticized Zuma in recent weeks. It would seem that the threshold of tolerance for Zuma’s excesses was crossed with the dismissal of Nene. Indeed, the President has increasingly been viewed inside his own party as reckless and authoritarian. Others, such as Zwelinzima Vavi, a former general secretary of Cosatu, the powerful trade union federation allied with the ANC, argues that “corrupt hyenas” within the ANC and close to Jacob Zuma are the likely culprits of his disastrous policies.

His policy reversals have also not gone un-noticed by the South African electorate. A recent survey by Afrobarometer found that Zuma’s public approval has dropped from 64% in 2011 to just 36 % in November 2015. The report stipulated that “a majority of citizens of all race groups disapprove of his performance in the past year”. Protests in most major cities of the country have also called for his removal from office. Even though his position seems secure for the moment, as the ANC still begrudgingly supports the President, the crisis of confidence cannot come at a worse moment for the president or for the ANC.

Zuma is in his last term of office and will not be able to stand again. The ANC is thus beginning to debate his potential successor. The President has been promoting his ex-wife Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma as his successor, a former minister and the current Chairwoman of the African Union. The move is widely seen as a means for Zuma to extend his influence and guarantee that he will not face charges of corruption at the end of his term. The main contender is his Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa, a former trade unionist, who enjoys the tacit support of Cosatu and good relations with the private sector. The recent blunders have weakened the Zuma camp and have given a potent advantage to his deputy who has started to position himself as the counter-Zuma candidate. Such a strategy could be a winning formula taking into account the un-popularity of the President, and by association the growing discontent towards the ANC.

The decision to appoint a successor to Zuma will be taken during the next ANC national conference in 2017, shortly after this year’s municipal elections. The municipal elections is a worrying back-drop for the President and will probably determine his future. The official opposition, the Democratic Alliance (DA), which currently only controls Cape Town and the Western Cape Province, has an opportunity to make major inroads in key cities. The party, often associated as a party of white interests, has attempted to shrug off the image under the leadership of its first black leader Mmusi Maimane. The ANC will face a tight race to retain its majority in the key cities of Johannesburg, Port Elizabeth and Tshwane (Pretoria).

The results will be capital for Zuma. If the elections are a success for the DA, as it attempts to capitalise on popular disenchantment towards the administration, the president could see his favoured successor defeated for the leadership. Such an outcome would turn him into a lame duck for the rest of his term. After having deposed his predecessor, a defeat at the ANC conference could maybe see history un-ravel itself with Zuma the likely victim.

Author Biography

Alexandre Raymakers is a graduate of the London School of Economics and Political Science holding a degree in International History and International Relations. He has extensive personal experience on the African continent having been born in Zimbabwe and lived in 4 different countries in Sub-Saharan Africa. He has previously worked for the Swiss Embassy in Kenya and has been working in Strategic Communications in London for the past year. His interests include International Security, African politics and European Affairs.

Cover image ‘President Jacob Zuma unveils Nelson Mandela sculpture, 4 Aug 2012‘ by GovernmentZA

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