Jacob Zuma, the Houdini of South African politics, has wriggled free from numerous attempts to oust him since becoming president in 2009. But persistent allegations of corruption, nepotism and abuse of power may finally be catching up with him as his enemies in the ruling African National Congress (ANC) and the opposition parties prepare to mount a vote of no confidence in parliament on Tuesday.
The showdown is especially dangerous for Zuma because it follows a court ruling in June allowing the speaker of the national assembly, Baleka Mbete, to hold a secret ballot. Mbete, a Zuma ally who survived an attempt in 2014 to sack her for alleged bias, has yet to indicate whether she will do so. But if the vote is held “in camera”, at least 20 ANC MPs critical of Zuma’s leadership are expected to back the motion.
The ANC holds 249 of the parliament’s 400 seats. The opposition, principally composed of the Democratic Alliance (DA) and Julius Malema’s Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF), will need 50 ANC defectors for a majority. A revolt on such a scale would once have been thought inconceivable in a party whose post-apartheid watchword is unity. But extra-parliamentary pressure for change is intense and growing.
Major street demonstrations are planned in Cape Town this week. A petition signed by more than a million people demanding Zuma’s removal has been presented to Cyril Ramaphosa, the deputy president, by the DA leader, Mmusi Maimane.
“South Africans from all walks of life have stood up together and said, ‘Look, we have got to a point now where we must ask Ramaphosa to do the right thing’,” Maimane said. “The question is, what is he going to do?”
The answer could determine who, sooner or later, succeeds Zuma as ANC leader and president of South Africa. Regardless of what happens in parliament, the ANC is due to meet in December to select an heir. Ramaphosa is one candidate. Other possibles are Lindiwe Sisulu, Jeff Radebe, Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, Zweli Mkhize, Mathews Phosa – and speaker Mbete. The extent of the line-up indicates how divided the ANC has become.
Both Ramaphosa and Sisulu, the presumed frontrunners, face a dilemma. They have repeatedly condemned Zuma-era factionalism, looting and so-called “state capture” – self-interested influence exercised by private businesses and individuals over state policy-making. But if Zuma falls, the main raison d’etre of their campaigns will fall with him.
And there is another problem: if Ramaphosa or the other presidential hopefuls back the parliamentary revolt, they will doubtless be lauded by the opposition. But many ANC members, who will choose Zuma’s successor in December (or sooner), may condemn them as traitors. Zuma supporters thus have reason to hope he will survive this no-confidence vote, as he has five others. Ramaphosa, who has been officially endorsed by Cosatu, the powerful trade union federation, has continued to argue that remaining silent about wrongdoing by the state and within the ANC amounts to a “betrayal of the struggle”. “The ANC is your ANC. It belongs to you… Nothing should stop you [from speaking out],” Ramaphosa told a Cosatu conference in May.
The opposition also includes high-profile individuals with no stated interest in the presidential succession, such as Pravin Gordhan, the former finance minister sacked by Zuma in March. Gordhan warned recently that state capture was crippling the country’s economy. If South Africans allowed the rot to continue, he said, “we are going to slump into a 10-year disaster”.
Much of the controversy over state capture centres on the relationship between Zuma and the wealthy Gupta business family, and alleged bribes and kickbacks associated with government contracts. Speaking to the BBC, Atal Gupta said the claims, including those made by Ramaphosa, were based on misunderstandings and misinformation, and denied any wrongdoing.
Controversy has also arisen over social media work undertaken by the British PR firm Bell Pottinger to defend Gupta businesses against the allegations. CEO James Henderson has admitted his company’s approach had been naive, but denied any intention to fuel racial tensions through use of terms such as “economic apartheid” and “white monopoly capital” (which Zuma has claimed lay behind calls for his resignation).
State capture has become a metaphor for the wider political and economic ills afflicting South African society. In a damning independent report last May, entitled Betrayal of the Promise: How South Africa Is Being Stolen, researchers from the universities of Cape Town, Witwatersrand, Johannesburg and Stellenbosch, funded by George Soros’s Open Society Foundation, accused “Zuma Inc” of turning the country into a mafia-style fiefdom.
It stated: “Commentators, opposition groups and ordinary South Africans underestimate Jacob Zuma, not simply because he is more brazen, wily and brutal than they expect but because they reduce him to caricature.” In reality, the report said, Zuma had presided over a concerted political project to repurpose state institutions to channel money to his cronies in a shadowy elite.
The report called on South Africans of all backgrounds to “defend the founding promise of democracy … by doing all that is necessary to stop the systemic and institutionalised process of betrayal”.
The no-confidence motion comes against a backdrop of increased disillusionment with the ANC, as evidenced by last year’s local elections, when the DA and EFF made significant gains. While Zuma’s unpopularity is undoubtedly to blame, so too is South Africa’s worsening economic performance.
Comparing South Africa with other emerging countries, the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development’s 2017 survey makes alarming reading. Growth has declined sharply since 2011, it said, partly because of electricity shortages, falling commodity prices and policy uncertainty. Unemployment is up, at 27%, while youth unemployment was 53% in 2016.
Low-quality education, high crime rates, healthcare deficiencies and violence against women are cited as continuing problems. A third of South Africans live on or below the poverty line, the survey found. And more than a quarter of a century after the end of apartheid, inequality remains stark, with the top fifth of the population earning 40 times more than the lowest.