Jacob Zuma and the bigger question about South Africa's future

After nine years, the Zuma era is coming to an end. Joseph Dana assesses what will happen next

(FILES) In this file photo taken on July 31, 2016 South African ruling party African National Congress (ANC) president Jacob Zuma (L) and deputy Cyril Ramaphosa  arriving for the ANC closing rally campaign for the municipal elections at Ellis Park Stadium in Johannesburg. 
Cyril Ramaphosa's long and eventful career has taken him from trade union activist to multi-millionaire -- and now within a heartbeat of the South African presidency. / AFP PHOTO / GIANLUIGI GUERCIA
Powered by automated translation

Jacob Zuma has weathered scandal after scandal during his nine years as president of South Africa, but his days are now numbered. On his watch, the economy of Africa's most industrialised nation has declined, the country's credit status has been reduced to junk and its currency has wildly fluctuated against international benchmarks. Simultaneously, social division has spiked and South Africa's ageing infrastructure has all but broken down, leaving Cape Town with the prospect of running out of water in the next three months.

This political chaos and mismanagement have reverberations far beyond the continent. As the only African nation in the G20, what happens in South Africa deeply affects sentiment about the rest of the continent. While the country might have a long history, it is young in terms of democracy. After Apartheid was dismantled, Nelson Mandela and the leadership of the African National Congress sent a message to the world that democracy would be respected in South Africa. Mr Zuma has put this message to the test.

Mr Zuma's relationship with the Gupta family, Indian immigrants to South Africa who have leveraged their proximity to the president to secure contracts and the apparent establishment of a patronage system predicated on corruption have raised serious questions about the rule of law in the country. With Mr Zuma's probable removal from power, the continent and the world is watching closely for clues as to whether South Africa can remain on its remarkable course of democracy or whether the country will go the way of Zimbabwe.

Having barely survived several scandals during his time in office, the beginning of the end for Mr Zuma took place last year when he lost a bid to have his ex-wife, Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, elected president of the ANC during party elections. Former union leader turned private businessman Cyril Ramaphosa won the presidency in a move welcomed across the country. Mr Ramaphosa, one of Africa's richest business people, is popular among the ANC's base and international investment circles.

Unlike many ANC veterans, he was not exiled during the anti-Apartheid struggle but he has come under fire for his controversial comments about the Marikana mine massacre in which 40 striking miners were killed by South African security forces in 2012. Having already made his money in the private sector, many South Africans believe Mr Ramaphosa will be an effective leader since he doesn't have to use his position to enrich himself, unlike Mr Zuma.

This week, the ANC National Executive Committee agreed to recall Mr Zuma as president, which it did with former President Thabo Mbeki in 2008. While this is an internal ANC measure, it is clear the president will have to step down. The question is how it will unfold and whether Mr Zuma will attempt to bring down the ANC as he is removed from office. It has been widely reported that Mr Zuma is fighting for immunity from corruption charges that may be brought on him once he leaves the office of the president. Surprisingly, he has several cards to play to achieve this goal.

If he doesn’t follow the ANC’s recall directive, he could force a motion of no-confidence in parliament. This would force the ANC to pass the motion against him using its majority, and the entire cabinet would have to resign while the speaker, Baleka Mbete, would become acting president until elections are held. Such a development would not be favourable for the ANC and its electoral prospects.

In the 2016 municipal elections, opposition parties including the Democratic Assembly and the Economic Freedom Fighters wrestled the key metros of Johannesburg and Pretoria away from ANC control. They are keen to use the current chaos to extend their power across the country. The ANC and Mr Ramaphosa are keen for a speedy "Zexit", as Mr Zuma’s removal has been called in the press, in order to give the new ANC president time to root out the corruption left by Mr Zuma and prepare for national elections.

Mr Zuma’s longevity in office despite his poor performance stems in large part from the patronage system he created throughout all levels of the South African government. He has loyalists occupying several key positions that owe their political lives to him. The primary challenge for Mr Ramaphosa, aside from kickstarting a stalled economy and reviving black empowerment programmes central to the ANC’s platform, will be to break up this system of patronage. A slow Zexit will only prolong this process and hurt the ANC.

Perhaps the greatest victims of the last eight years of Zuma’s presidency are the millions of disenfranchised black youth in the country. After Apartheid ended, Mandela and other ANC leaders laid the groundwork for a remarkable system of wealth redistribution. A key aspect of this transformation was the creation of an effective tax collection service, known by the acronym SARS. That office, like so many others under Mr Zuma’s watch, has been mired in mismanagement and is not able to complete its task in an effective manner. Once he becomes president, Mr Ramaphosa will have to heal a nation while rebuilding the infrastructure needed to achieve a level of economic equality needed for a healthy democracy to function.