South Africans appear to have finally lost patience with long-beleaguered president Jacob Zuma. Mass protests against him have been occurring throughout the country, most prominently in Cape Town where at the start of April, thousands gathered in front of parliament calling for his resignation.
The catalyst for this crisis was Zuma’s purge of many of his respected ministers, including Finance Minister Pravin Gordhan. Gordhan, a veteran of the ANC movement, has developed a strong reputation as a bulwark against corruption and had been involved in a months-long battle with Zuma over government spending and control of the public purse. Gordhan has also been known to block vast deals which were reportedly pursued by the President’s wealthy, influential cronies, the Gupta family.
Zuma publically defended the sacking, stating that the changes were in pursuit of “radical socio-economic transformation” and improvement to the lives of the poor and working-class. South Africans are clearly unconvinced, as were the international markets, which reacted with a tangible sense of horror, at the sign that the Treasury, a bastion of caution and integrity, could no longer be trusted with public funds. The South African rand fell 5% and the ratings agency S&P downgraded South African credit to junk status. With falling wages and rising food prices, people have taken to the streets to vent their anger.
Zuma is no stranger to controversy. Accusations of corruption have followed him throughout his whole political career, but these are much more serious allegations then Zuma simply lining his pockets. The President is accused of allowing his friends, the Gupta family, to run the South African state for their own benefit. It is said that the true seat of power in South Africa, is at the Guptas’ home in the affluent Johannesburg suburb of Saxonwold, and that the family often handpick cabinet ministers to do their bidding.
This behaviour has not gone unchallenged in South Africa. In November Public Prosecutor Thuli Madonsela, published a damning report into the capture of the state by corrupt officials; from the President and his cabinet, all the way down to local officials. In her last act in office, Madonsela recommended establishing a judicial inquiry into the involvement of the Gupta family in state systems. Zuma fought the release of the report and never set up the inquiry.
In January as part of these official investigations into corruption, Pravin Gordhan spoke publicly in court to say the Guptas were plotting against him. At the time, the Guptas denied it. Now he is gone and has been replaced by a man whose chief qualification appears to be his loyalty to Zuma and his own links to the Gupta family.
While in the past there have often been public calls and even protests demanding that Zuma step down, what is happening now sets a new precedent. The ANC’s two most loyal allies, the Communist Party and the Congress of South African Trade Unions, have both deserted Zuma, demanding his resignation. The country’s religious leaders say Zuma has lost all moral legitimacy and must resign. Even the ANC’s own integrity commission asked for Zuma to step down. Time and again, he has refused.
The only allies Zuma has left are found within the African National Congress, and these are the only ones with the power to remove him. For him to go, Zuma must either be sacked as leader of the party, or lose a no-confidence vote, yet neither will happen anytime soon. In fighting his removal, Zuma has shown a great resilience and a total lack of shame, and has survived two no-confidence votes within the past year.
ANC MPs are loathed to rebel against their leader, as many feed off the same bribery and corruption that feeds Zuma. Voting against the President and publicly stating their opposition may well lose MPs their seat in the next national election. Even now the ANC appears to have closed ranks, as the group’s Secretary General, Gwede Mantashe, warned publicly that members who speak out against Zuma would “pay the price” for their disloyalty.
The fate of the ANC party within South Africa currently seems set. While it still holds a comfortable majority within the National Congress, its strength has been slowly eaten away over the past two decades. Parties such as the Democratic Alliance and the more extreme Economic Freedom Fighters have been gaining ground and making inroads in former ANC territories. As the DA’s leader, Mmusi Maimane, said in a recent address to parliament, “corruption infests Jacob Zuma and the ANC like a cancer”. Either this cancer will be treated, or it will kill the patient.
Rupert Wilkinson is a former student of SOAS University and aspiring misanthrope. Follow him on Twitter @nutstothis or contact him for more information.