After nine years as South African president, Jacob Zuma resigned on February 14 amid charges of corruption, fraud, money-laundering and racketeering. Zuma has weathered accusations like these for years by appealing to his popular support and by keeping the support of his party, the African National Congress (ANC), which has had hegemonic control over South Africa since the end of apartheid. It was only when his corruption and failed economic leadership began eroding the popular support of the ANC that a faction of the ANC leadership led by his rival, Cyril Ramaphosa, moved to remove him from power. Now, Ramaphosa has taken his place as President and is building his brand around cleaning up South African politics, and Zuma is his first target.
Zuma’s brand as a man of the people fighting against the white urban elite allowed him to keep his grip on the presidency for as long as he did. He built this image up around his own life-story: He is an ethnic Zulu from the province of KwaZulu-Natal, who rose from poverty to the top of South African politics. In the 1960s, Zuma was in prison alongside Nelson Mandela for fighting to take down the apartheid government and has been a leading member of the African National Congress (ANC) for decades. He has used his natural charisma to build wide popular support around his life-story. His base is strongest in KwaZulu-Natal, which has more ANC supporters than any other province in South Africa, and this has given him increased leverage at the national level.
Zuma has held onto popular support despite a steady stream of corruption scandals that first arose before he became president in 2009. In 2005, when he was Deputy President of South Africa, the president at the time, Thabo Mbeki, forced him to resign after evidence arose that led to allegations that Zuma had corruptly gained from a deal with a French arms company. A businessman, Schabir Shaik, who worked closely with Zuma at this time was sentenced to fifteen years in prison for charges of fraud which including soliciting bribes on behalf of Zuma. However, no evidence came to light that directly condemned Zuma, so he was able to fend off the allegations.
It was in response to this 2005 scandal that Zuma developed the defense that he has consistently used against the steady stream of allegations against him ever since. He dismisses any corruption charges as politically motivated fabrications made up by his opponents in the ANC, the white elite, and the leaders of opposition parties. Whenever he is confronted with his own corruption, he makes himself the victim.
Despite the cloud of alleged corruption that was already around him, Zuma became president in 2009. He ran against the increasingly unpopular Mbeki, who attempted to remain president for a third term despite the Constitutional term limit. Between Zuma’s brand as a man of the people and Mbeki’s image as a cold-hearted elite, Zuma easily won.
Once he was president, Zuma had more tools at his disposal to stay in power and fend off any corruption allegations. He consolidated power by rewarding loyalists with political leverage, including cabinet positions, and by punishing his opponents. Anti-corruption activists in Zuma’s home province were even killed.
However, these practices were not enough to buffer him from probes into his use of government funds to build his extravagant homestead, Nkandla, in 2012. Although Zuma initially insisted that he had only spent his own personal money, it came to light that he had spent approximately $23 million of state funds. Then, he claimed this money was used only for necessary security upgrades, even insisting that the swimming pool was actually a fire pool. This brazen corruption sparked a widespread backlash against Zuma and the ANC, even among traditionally staunch ANC supporters.
Between his own stalling and slow bureaucratic proceedings, it took years for the Nkandla scandal to have any legal repercussions on Zuma. However, popular pressure pushed the courts to eventually take action. In March 2016, the Constitutional Court ruled that Zuma had misused taxpayers’ money and that he had to pay back a portion of the $23 million. Zuma paid back the approximately half a million dollars that the court ruled he owed the state.
Despite the Nkandla scandal, Zuma still had the support of the ANC, and because the ANC is the only party to be in power in South Africa since the end of apartheid, any effort to pass a vote of no confidence failed and Zuma remained in office. Zuma even won reelection in 2012. Kgalema Motlanthe, his challenger within the ANC in 2012, did not campaign because of party customs that constrain a candidate who is challenging an incumbent president. Furthermore, the party’s candidate is selected by party delegates who are predominantly too privileged to be bearing the brunt of the economic crisis that has plagued South Africa under Zuma. Without the ANC’s nomination, Zuma could not have won reelection.
In 2016, a new corruption scandal cemented Zuma’s unpopularity. It became public knowledge that Zuma had been giving profitable government contracts to two wealthy Indian brothers, the Guptas. There is even evidence that Zuma agreed to sell the office of chief finance minister to the Gupta family, which would amount to private interests controlling economic decision-making in South Africa. Although Zuma is still vehemently insisting that all the evidence had been fabricated by his political rivals, his typical defenses have not been enough to win back the support of the people and keep his party behind him.
The local elections in August 2016 showed the ANC leadership that Zuma’s corruption was pushing voters who had once been staunch supporters of the ANC to opposition parties.
Opposition parties made historic gains in 2016. The major opposition party, the centrist Democratic Alliance (DA), narrowed the ANC’s majority by appealing to popular discontent over Zuma’s corruption. The ANC is also losing voters to far-left parties, like the Economic Freedom Fighters, that have fractured off due to economic discontent. The ANC lost ground in several major cities, including Johannesburg and Pretoria, and only received 54 percent of the vote overall. This is the lowest majority the ANC has won in post-apartheid South Africa. Just two years before the ANC had won 62 percent of the vote, which many ANC leaders already considered too low for comfort.
If the ANC fails to win 50 percent of the vote in the 2019 election, there will likely be a coalition government in which the ANC would have to share power with other parties. Historically, the priority of the leadership of the ANC has been to keep the country from transitioning to a multi-party system. And because many attributed the ANC’s decline to Zuma, factions of the party began to question the wisdom of standing behind the controversial president.
Previously, as long as Zuma maintained the ANC’s support and popular support, his power was safe. Yet as his corruption has become more brazen, Zuma’s once widespread support has diminished. Although there are still crowds rallying to support him, his approval rating dropped below 20 percent in 2017. This popular discontent is not only rooted in his corruption, but also in the economic downturn that Zuma’s leadership has largely brought on South Africa. Growth is at a mere 1 percent, unemployment is nearing 30 percent, and foreign investment is low due to widespread corruption and political instability.
When Cyril Ramaphosa, who is another member of the ANC establishment and who was leading the faction within the ANC working to remove Zuma, won control of the ANC late last year he used his power within the party to take down Zuma. Zuma officially resigned from the Presidency on February 14.
Ramaphosa, who had been Mandela’s chosen successor, took Zuma’s place as president. He is leading a fight against corruption, and largely because of his pressure, corruption charges are being pressed against Zuma. However, as an established member of the ANC’s old guard, it is questionable how much reform Ramaphosa will bring.
Although Zuma has lost his political office, he has not lost all of his popular support. Last month, thousands came to support him when he went to a court hearing. They cling to the belief that there is no evidence behind the corruption and believe his story that the party elite is persecuting him. Some extreme fragments of the ANC, including the Black First Land First movement, believe that Zuma is the victim of a now pro-white ANC. Zuma also still has a strong base in his home province, which is the most populated province under ANC control. This controversy will further fragment the already fractured ANC.
Between this and the increasingly successful efforts of the traditionally white Democratic Alliance to build a coalition that spans racial divides, Ramaphosa will struggle to keep the ANC’s hegemonic control over the country. Whether or not he is successful will depend on his ability to eliminate corruption, and, most urgently, his ability to revive the economy. As recent large protests against ANC leadership prove, removing Zuma has not quelled popular discontent with the ANC. The protesters see the ANC’s corruption as a whole as an obstacle to their economic well-being. However, even if Ramaphosa makes some progress in fighting corruption, which is already an uphill battle in a political culture so steeped in corruption, it will take even longer for any of these benefits to bring in the foreign investment that South Africa needs to revive its economy.
The 2019 elections will indicate whether or not the ANC will stay in power. If the DA continues to broaden its base to include more black voters, it could use popular discontent about the economy to carry itself and its coalition partners into power. Alternatively, the ANC could build its own coalition with smaller parties. Yet unlike the ANC, the DA already has a relationship with the parties with which it has built local coalitions, so its goal to take power in 2019 seems achievable.
Unless Ramaphosa both passes reforms and meaningfully improves the lives of the average South African within two years, it is likely that a coalition government will take control of South Africa for the first time since the end of apartheid, which would be a historic step towards true democracy.Claire Potter is a Staff Writer for the Gate. The image featured in this article is licensed under the Creative Commons and was taken by the GCIS of the government of South Africa. The license can be found here. The original image can be found here.
Claire Potter is a first-year potential political science major at the University of Chicago interested in journalism and international relations. On campus, she is a member of the Women in Public Service Project and is a Fellows Ambassador at the Institute of Politics. In her free time, she enjoys hiking, reading, and exploring the city.