In everything but title, Jacob Zuma is no longer President of South Africa. The third Head of the post-apartheid state languishes in what, almost certainly, are the final stanzas of what is widely accepted as a self-inflicted descent into disgrace, his removal from office being presided over by the very African National Congress (ANC) that gave him political life in the first place and afterwards elevated him to the leadership of the nation.
From a distance, the ponderous process of Zuma’s eviction (for that is what it is) from office resembles an elaborate pantomime, unfolding in seemingly unending layers of painstaking negotiations. It is a process that differs sharply – to South Africa’s considerable credit ‒ from the sort of violent national upheaval that so often characterizes regime change in Africa. At the same time it is driven by an entirely different set of dynamics, the primary component of which is the paramountcy of the ANC as the driving force behind mainstream politics in South Africa. In other words, in the matter of Zuma’s removal from office, regime change is not an issue.
As the narrative with its various twists and turns unfolds, Zuma remains imprisoned in a quixotic condition of office without authority. Nowhere was that condition made clearer than in his being denied the privilege of delivering the symbolically significant State of the Nation address that had been scheduled for last Thurs-day. There is now every likelihood that Zuma will not now have that privilege. The somewhat bigger headache for the ANC, however, has to do with the likely damage which the protracted hiatus could inflict on a party reportedly considerably divided on the issue of Zuma’s removal.
Over time, Zuma’s public profile has metamorphosed into an embarrassment for South Africa as a whole, besieged as he has been by the litany of scandals that have attached themselves to him. There have been issues raised about the moral propriety of President Zuma’s personal life though those accusations that have had the most traction have had to do with corruption-related issues, revolving around the misdirection of state resources for his personal use and reports of widespread influence-peddling. It seems that the extent of his excesses had reached a point where many of his comrades in the ANC were afforded no room to look the other way.
As is the case with politically driven corruption elsewhere, such indiscretions in South Africa are driven by their own dynamics. Analysts of the crisis now confronting the country point to a much broader corruption culture, a cabal, if you will, that goes way beyond Zuma himself. This is a circumstance which they say has compelled influential politicians and business people both inside and outside South Africa to become bedfellows with the South African President in his hour of crisis, making his removal from office a much more complex matter than it otherwise would have been.
That is why, South Africa watchers, say, Cyril Ramaphosa, the man who now seems set to replace Zuma as President, is treading carefully, even gingerly; he wants to do everything possible to evade the misfortune of inheriting an ANC that is sufficiently divided on the Zuma issue to make his own political life difficult, down the road.
South Africa, for now, must endure the absurdity of still having to countenance Jacob Zuma’s presidency in circumstances where an irreversible process that will cause him to have to leave office, is well in train though the manner of his termination will remain a blot on the ANC’s image.
That the opposition had threatened to disrupt the State of the Nation address if it had been allowed to proceed would probably not have been the ANC’s biggest worry. The bigger concern would have been that against the backdrop of his location at the very centre of what is, in effect South Africa’s most serious post-apartheid political crisis, it would have been farcical to have Zuma address the nation in a moment of such consummate shame.
The highly respected Nelson Mandela Foundation wants him out too. They have said so, pulling no punches, asserting that under his rule South Africa has had to endure “systematic looting.” The Founda-tion says it wants him to go “sooner rather than later.”
And yet there is a sense that the ANC is seeking to allow for Zuma’s departure without adding to the burden of the public shame that has already been heaped on him. In that context one can hardly overlook the similarity of his circumstances with those of his Zimbabwean counterpart, Robert Mugabe who, in November last year, was allowed to demit office with guarantees of a quality of life and a suite of perks, a ‘gratuity’ widely considered to be undeserving. Zuma too is likely to benefit from a generous sendoff, though it appears likely that he will still have to face the courts.
Customarily, the removal of unwanted political leaders from office is invariably the doing of their adversaries, not least their political opponents and disapproving constituencies. Not so in Zuma’s case. His unhurried demise is being presided over by his own comrades. Nor is it attended by a boisterous popular demand, a baying for blood. It began with attempts by President Zuma’s own colleagues seeking to negotiate his departure with him. After he had made it clear that he wasn’t budging, a multi-tiered internal ANC process kicked in, overseen by the deliberate exertions of Cyril Ramaphosa, who has provided public assurances that Zuma’s fall will not be a blood-on-the-carpet affair, politically, that is. Much the same assurance was provided in the case of Robert Mugabe who, initially, had been inclined to dig in. As has already been stated Ramaphosa knows that he is walking a somewhat risky political line.
The strenuous attempts by the ANC to try to have Zuma exit in some measure of dignity also points to the survival of loyalties fashioned in the era of the liberation struggle and which still possess a generous measure of currency today. Zuma’s departure, (like Mugabe’s), will be characterized by an understanding amongst those of his colleagues charged with presiding over his removal from office that in politics, what goes around can sometimes come around with a vengeance.
There are, it should be noted, differences between Mugabe’s Zimbabwe and current events in South Africa. Mugabe had led his country through almost four post-liberation decades of near unchallenged rule, through successive general elections that had been blighted by allegations of vote-rigging and through repeated episodes of alleged human rights violations. There had been, as well, the matter of the running of the Zimbabwean economy into the ground and the international criticism that his regime had attracted. In the instance of South Africa, the post-apartheid Republic has clung tenaciously to democratic behaviour and the rule of law, slip-ups and indiscretions at the political level notwithstanding. In South Africa the judicial system has worked and still works. In fact, such restraints as were placed on President Zuma’s excesses have been largely a function of the integrity of the country’s judicial system.
All the more reason why the sense of theatre that attends the death throes of Jacob Zuma’s presidency amounts to a national tragedy for post-apartheid South Africa. Coming in the wake of Nelson Mandela’s legacy it is altogether undeserving.
(This was written prior to yesterday’s announcement that should President Jacob Zuma not agree to step down by the conclusion of a meeting of the National Executive Committee on Monday February 12th, he would be ordered to demit office in the face of a vote of no confidence in South Africa’s Parliament.)