It would have come as no great surprise to political watchers that South Africa’s President Jacob Zuma is facing yet another political crisis. Arguably the most controversial high-profile political figure of the post-apartheid era, Zuma has not only come under critical public scrutiny for allegedly misdirecting millions of dollars in public funds towards the upgrading of his own private property, but has also been accused of further enriching himself at the expense of the state. It will be recalled the South African President received what was, at best a lukewarm public reception when he appeared at the funeral ceremony for Nelson Mandela, the country’s first post-apartheid President in December 2015.
Up until now and even against the backdrop of questions that have been raised within the African National Congress (ANC) itself about his track record as President, Zuma has, by and large, been able to retain the loyalty of South’s Africa’ ruling party, as a whole. Last week, the political worm turned disconcertingly as tens of thousands of people across South Africa joined demonstrations demanding that he step down. Huge protests in key locations like Pretoria, Johannesburg that reportedly included large numbers of hard core ANC supporters coupled with smaller crowds in suburban regions sent a message that the controversial South African President’s popularity may well be on an irreversible downward trajectory.
That, it seems, has been the case for quite a few years. At 74, Zuma’s almost seven years in office as South Africa’s President has been littered with accusations of cronyism and cultivating inappropriate relations with wealthy business tycoons. He has been named in numerous corruption charges, but denies any wrongdoing.
Last week’s crisis, triggered by the removal of South Africa’s Finance Minister Parvin Gordhan from office is now seen as arguably the most serious to face South Africa since minority white rule ended more than two decades ago. The removal of Gordhan resulted in an almost immediate slide in the value of South Africa’s rand.
While political control remains firmly in the hands of the ANC, the feeling among many black South Africans is that the party that led the liberation struggle and which has ruled since 1994 could eventually end up paying a high political price if Zuma’s tenure is extended much further. Here, the primary fear is that traditional ANC supporters who have benefited only marginally – if at all – from black majority rule may now have arrived at a juncture where force of circumstances compel them to look for a political compass in a different direction.
President Zuma is nothing if not a mercurial figure. While, for much of his tenure, he has been unable to avoid political controversy, he has managed, somehow, to retain the support of influential elements within the ANC. Again, this time around, he has not only waved away calls by veterans of the liberation struggle, the Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU) unions and South Africa’s Communist party (a historical ally of the ANC) for him to demit office, but seemed likely to survive a confidence vote in parliament later this month.
Zuma’s critics make the point that beyond the immediate political rumblings, the controversy that continues to shroud President Zuma may well impact on South Africa long after he demits office, The most worrying of South Africa’s current problems is the erosion of the country’s economy and the still unfulfilled economic aspirations of the poorest of the poor amongst the country’s black majority. Zuma’s critics have accused him of creating a new clique of rich blacks, some of whom are said to be descendants of one-time high-profile functionaries in the liberation struggle. Corruption charges apart, they have also charged him with compromising the moral rudder that has been the ‘heart and soul’ of the political party (the ANC) which they still describe as “Mandela’s Party.”
No less damaging, President Zuma’s critics say, has been the impact of his track record on the country’s external image, both inside and outside the continent. Is the image of a transformed South Africa that became one of the iconic political moments of the twentieth century now beginning to rapidly lose its value under the Zuma presidency?