Nic Cheeseman reflects on the political life and times of Jacob Zuma, and questions whether he will survive the State of Capture report, which uncovered the hold that the Gupta family have secured on the state.
It has not been a good few months for President Jacob Zuma. Economic stagnation, public frustration at the slow pace of national transformation, and accusations of corruption concerning work done to Zuma’s Nkandla home, resulted in a poor performance in municipal elections held on 3 August. Although the ruling African National Congress (ANC) retained its position as the as the largest party, securing 53.9% of the vote, the government lost ground to the opposition in a number of important urban areas. Most notably, the best ever performance of the Democratic Alliance (DA) in a local election, combined with a strong showing by the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF), which improved on its performance in the 2014 general elections, resulted in the ANC losing control of three metropolitan municipalities: Nelson Mandela Bay, City of Tshwane and City of Johannesburg. One consequence of these trends was an increase in the number of areas with minority and coalition government.
Zuma’s position was further undermined by a report by the former Public Protector (a statutory position designed to “strengthen constitutional democracy by investigating and redressing improper and prejudicial conduct) Thuli Madonsela into accusations of corruption against the president. Anticipating a negative outcome, Zuma had tried to block the publication of the report in the courts, but was ultimately forced to drop the case. While much of the 355 page report confirmed what the president’s critics had already alleged, the publication of the document has been cited as a “game-changer” in the country’s politics. On the one hand, the length and depth of the report removed any last vestige of doubt about Zuma’s culpability in the rise of clientelistic and corrupt networks within the ANC. On the other, the evidence provided in the report regarding Zuma’s relationship with wealthy businessmen such as Ajay Gupta, shone a new light into the inner-workings of the patrimonial practices that now animate the ANC.
Many of the reports findings demonstrate contempt for the rule of law, and a brazen approach to the manipulation of politics for economic ends, including evidence that:
• Ajar Gupta offered the Deputy Finance Minister Mcebisi Jonas $44.6 million to take the post of Finance Minister and advance the Gupta family’s “business ambitions”. When he refused, the post was given to an ANC MP with far less experience.
• The government media chief Themba Maseko was told by Zuma to help the “Gupta brothers”, who subsequently asked him to direct advertising to a newspaper set up by the family.
• Not only was the board of the Eskom utility company improperly constituted, but it paid nearly $70 million to a firm linked to the Guptas.
• Many of the deals that Zuma facilitated for the Guptas – a network branded the “Zuptas” by opposition parties – involved the president’s son, Duduzane.
Following the report, protestors marched on Zuma’s office in Pretoria, demanding his resignation. Perhaps more significantly, the National Education Health and Allied Workers’ Union (Nehawu), the biggest affiliate of the Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU), called on the president to resign in the interests of the country. This was a particularly significant move given the strategic importance of COSATU, which is one of the members of the ANC’s “triple alliance” along with the South African Communist Party. Moreover, rather than simply criticising the president, Nehawu’s leadership set out a concrete set of proposals for his removal, arguing that deputy president Cyril Ramaphosa should be promoted to caretaker president.
However, despite the gathering storm clouds, Zuma may live to fight another day. Although Madonsela’s report was damning, it was not the “knock out” blow that opposition parties had hoped for. Significantly, instead of recommending any punishment directly, the report calls on the president to establish a judicial commission of enquiry. This could take some time – and could be drawn out in such a way that Zuma makes it to the end of his second and last term as president. Even if such an inquiry were completed more quickly, and gave grounds for impeachment, it is unclear whether there would be support for this within the National Assembly. One feature of corrupt and clientelistic regimes is that they tend to enjoy strong levers of influence internally, and the ANC currently holds 249 out of 400 seats in the lower house.
Of course, the longer Zuma stays in office, the more likely it is that voters will seek to punish the ANC for his misdemeanours. But it is important to keep in mind that this is not the first time that Zuma’s downfall, and the breakdown of the triple alliance, have been prophesied. Back in 2013, South Africa’s largest trade union, the National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa (Numsa), called on Zuma to resign and said that it would not support the ANC in the 2014 elections. However, neither this, nor the fact that Numsa was subsequently expelled from COSATU, and hence the triple alliance, prevented the ANC from securing over 60% of the vote.
It is therefore too early to talk of the end of Jacob Zuma. Characteristically, the president has come out fighting, and the early signs suggest that he will seek to challenge the findings of the report in court. Such a move would further delay the president’s day of judgement, and suggests that he remains determined to control his own destiny. This may yet include seeing out his term in office, and continuing to shape ANC politics long after he has stepped down from the presidency.