Jacob Zuma in 2013 ©Pacific Press/Pacific Press via Zuma Wire/Rex Shutterstock

Jacob Zuma must fall

The South African president is much to blame for his country's woes
February 18, 2016

On the evening of 9th December last year, South Africa’s President Jacob Zuma sent out a terse press statement dismissing his highly respected finance minister, Nhlanhla Nene. He replaced him with an unknown, David van Rooyen, a former small-town mayor.

The market’s reaction to the announcement was instant and brutal, leading to massive equity, bond and rand sell-offs. The rand plummeted against the US dollar and the pound and the South African stock market dropped by 2.94 per cent. Economists warned the move would destabilise an economy already struggling with high unemployment and slowing growth. Nene’s dismissal came only a week after ratings agencies had downgraded South Africa’s debt to one level above the dreaded “junk” status.

Zuma’s fellow leaders in the African National Congress (ANC) scratched their heads, wondering who the new minister was. Van Rooyen had no significant speeches or contributions to policy in his name. Apparently, no one in Zuma’s 35-strong cabinet knew about the appointment, even though they had been in a cabinet meeting just hours before the news was announced. Trevor Manuel, who served as Finance Minister in both Nelson Mandela and Thabo Mbeki’s cabinets, said of Van Rooyen: “Even I, as an MP for the period he served in Parliament from 2009 to 2014, when he was my fellow ANC member, battled to recall who he was.”

For many South Africans, the appointment was the Zuma administration’s latest grab for control of resources after a six-year assault on the country’s institutions. By installing a politically weak Finance Minister, Zuma was aiming for control of the national treasury. The week before Nene was sacked he had rejected two deals—a multimillion-dollar nuclear energy building programme and an attempt to renegotiate an Airbus deal by the state airline. He was widely known to be critical of the government’s overspending. Floyd Shivambu, Deputy President of Economic Freedom Fighters, a radical new political party, said Nene was removed so that Zuma could exercise complete control over the country’s finances.

"For many the ANC, the party of Nelson Mandela, is dismantling all the gains made since democracy dawned in April 1994"
In the end, though, Zuma bowed to pressure from international and local banks, other ANC leaders and civil society—marches were held across South Africa under the slogan #ZumaMustFall. Just four days after naming Van Rooyen he was forced to declare that Pravin Gordhan, Finance Minister from 2009 to 2014, had been re-appointed to the portfolio instead.

This embarrassing climbdown was merely the latest controversy in the president’s tenure, leading to renewed concerns that South Africa is losing its way under Zuma. For many the ANC, the party of Nelson Mandela, is dismantling all the gains made since democracy dawned in April 1994. Crucially, this time it is the ANC’s current and former leaders, its international supporters and ordinary South Africans who are making this charge rather than the political opposition.

Former ANC Treasurer-General Mathews Phosa, for one. “By accommodating friends, acquaintances and other hangers-on to use the party as a ladder to positions and wealth, our beloved party has weakened itself, the alliance [with unions and the Communist Party] and the country,” said Phosa in February. Others agree, such as veteran ANC activist Denis Goldberg, who was tried alongside Nelson Mandela and imprisoned. “Corruption is a problem,” Goldberg said in January: “The members of the ANC need to renew the leadership from top to bottom.”

What is going wrong in South Africa? Sceptics have been predicting its demise since Mandela left prison in 1990. When he stepped down as president in 1999, they said this would be the end. They were still repeating this mantra in 2013 when he died. As Peter Hain, a former anti-apartheid activist and Labour cabinet minister, said in February: “There have always been the ‘jaundiced whites’: those who reluctantly praised the ‘Mandela miracle’ but who never accepted the consequences—namely that their grotesquely privileged existence had to go. These days they can barely conceal their smirks, as they proclaim ‘I told you so!’”

Today, however, it is the children and supporters of the freedom struggle who are bemoaning the state of South Africa. Of course, not all of its problems can be attributed to one man, yet much of the blame lies with Zuma. Since becoming president in 2009, he has tried to cow the media and promoted cronies and benefactors to the heart of the state. At the same time, economic growth has ground to a halt, unemployment and inequality have soared, and race relations and the education system have worsened markedly.
"Race has forced its way back into the centre of South African politics"
Zuma has carried out a wide restructuring of South Africa’s state institutions, such as the independent prosecutions authority. One of his first acts as ANC president, for example, was to disband the Scorpions, the independent police unit that conducted investigations into fraud, corruption and racketeering. It has been replaced with a new organisation, which has achieved conviction rates only half those of its predecessor. The internationally-lauded Thuli Madonsela, the Public Protector (the country’s ombudsman), was accused of being a “CIA agent” by a cabinet minister over her investigation of Nkandla, Zuma’s private residence in his home village. At least R246m (£13m) of taxpayers’ money was spent on Nkandla on the grounds that it needed a security upgrade. Madonsela’s 400-page report argued that the pool‚ amphitheatre‚ chicken run and visitors’ centre were unrelated to security and that Zuma should repay that money.

Hain sums it up: “Jacob Zuma has indeed allowed corruption to flourish on a scale which poses a huge and cancerous threat. Cronyism has replaced merit, not only in the public services, but also in the [state-controlled entities] which play such a vital role in the economy—from energy to airlines and water supply.”

There is another malaise that extends deep into the heart and history of the nation. As the media entrepreneur Alec Hogg has written, many around the world see South Africa as more than a country: “To them it is an idea, a possibility of greatness embodied within the human condition and personified by the late Nelson Mandela… South Africa’s peaceful transition gave hope to idealists everywhere.”

That possibility, that idea, too, seems to be waning. Increasingly, the racial harmony of the Rainbow Nation, as Archbishop Desmond Tutu called it, is under strain. Race has forced its way back into the centre of politics. At the start of this year, a white estate agent called Penny Sparrow referred to black people as monkeys on her Facebook page, unleashing a storm of condemnation and eruptions of racism and hate speech. Amid this spat came questions about whether South Africa had ever reckoned with its past.
"The unemployment rate among black males aged 15 to 24 years is 67 per cent. It is worse if you are a woman."
Mondli Makhanya, the former editor of South Africa’s biggest newspaper the Sunday Times, wrote in January: “The searing political and social temperatures we are experiencing at the very beginning of 2016 are an inevitable consequence of the neglect of this critical issue in our 22 years as a democracy. In our first five years as a democratic republic, we were so grateful that we had averted conflagration, that we sang ‘Kumbaya’ and didn’t deal with the psychological legacy of the apartheid ideology.”

He points to figures published by the Institute for Justice and Reconciliation in 2015: 61 per cent of South Africans believe race relations have either deteriorated or stayed the same since 1994, more than half never interact in private and social spaces with other races and 67 per cent “indicated that they generally have little or no trust in people of other race groups.”

The racial mood seems as Makhanya describes it: angry, foul, and largely with no cogent answers to the problem. Politicians have taken advantage of the issue to score points in the looming local government elections slated for June. Twenty-two years after democracy, the races are looking away from one another.

The disintegration of the Rainbow Nation idea is accompanied by terrible rates of unemployment and economic growth that put pressure on social stability.

Under Nelson Mandela and Thabo Mbeki, government debt was taken from its level under apartheid (about 50 per cent of GDP in 1994) to less than 30 per cent of GDP. Under Zuma it has ratcheted up to over 40 per cent. Unemployment is rising while economic growth has deteriorated sharply. A respected South African labour force survey found that the jobless rate rose to 26.4 per cent in the first three months of 2015—the highest level in 11 years. In all, 8.7m able-bodied people are unemployed, including those who have given up looking for work.

The immediate future looks bleak. South Africa is already one of the most unequal countries in the world. The World Bank and International Monetary Fund’s growth forecasts of 0.8 per cent and 0.7 per cent respectively reflect little optimism of meaningful improvement in the year ahead. Following the December downgrades, credit ratings agencies are threatening further ones that could take the country’s sovereign rating to “junk” status.

Meanwhile, the people are restive. The police minister told parliament that there were 14,740 incidents of unrest in 2014. The South African Institute of Race Relations says the unemployment rate among black males aged 15 to 24 years is a staggering 67 per cent. These are people born in a free South Africa. It is worse if you are a woman: 75 per cent of black females in the same category are unemployed. Just over 29 per cent of the prison population is aged between 14 and 25, says the institute.

It is perhaps in the area of education that the new South Africa is failing most. Basic Education Minister Angie Motshekga recently described the system as being characterised by “pockets of disaster.” She quoted a study that showed that teachers in former blacks-only schools teach for only 3.5 hours a day compared to the 6.5 hours taught by those in former whites-only schools. Another study from 2012 found that in some parts of the country teachers taught only 40 per cent of scheduled lessons.

Finally the ANC, for so long a proponent of human rights, seems to be abandoning this tradition too. Last year, Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir was in South Africa for an African Union summit. The International Criminal Court (ICC) has issued a warrant for Al-Bashir on ten counts of genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity—during the war in Darfur, the United Nations estimates that 300,000 of his countrymen died and 2m were displaced. As a member of the ICC, South Africa was obliged to arrest him, yet the government refused to. In January, the ANC voted to withdraw from the ICC, claiming it was “unfair.” What now?

There is no doubt that South Africa is sliding on many fronts, but some green shoots are starting to appear. Various popular movements are beginning to take on the state.

In October 2015, students responded to a proposed 10.5 per cent increase in tuition fees by staging demonstrations across the country. After less than two weeks of the #FeesMustFall campaign, Zuma buckled and agreed not to increase fees in 2016.

Since his backdown over the post of finance minister, Zuma no longer seems untouchable. After previously refusing, he has now offered to pay back some of the money spent on his luxury house. Now there is speculation on how long he will be in power.

It may not matter how long Zuma lasts. Already, his party is changing. Support for the ANC was withering in the coastal city of Port Elizabeth, dropping from 66 per cent in 2006 to 48 per cent in 2014. Facing a humiliating defeat in elections this year, the ANC has acted to place new leaders in office.

Sadly, Zuma’s greatest damage has been to the country’s institutions of democracy and accountability, which have been packed with cronies and shorn of their independence. Whoever the country’s next leader is, purging these institutions and restoring them will be a great challenge. Yet it is not impossible. A post-Zuma South Africa is slowly beginning to emerge, but it will need bold leadership, vision, principles and focus to work.