By Mduduzi Mathuthu
JOHANNESBURG-SOUTH African President Jacob Zuma has survived countless personal and political crises, but the release of a report into alleged “state capture” this week has set the stage for his “slow and painful public execution”, which could unceremoniously end his presidency.
Zuma, 74, has survived a litany of allegations but has withstood them all even as his political obituary was being prepared.
In 2005, he was charged with rape but was eventually acquitted following a trial. A year earlier, the then Vice President also faced allegations of racketeering and corruption after his financial adviser, Schabir Shaik, was convicted of corruption and fraud relating to shady payments from an arms deal. He was sacked as Vice President, although the charges were later dropped, but not before he returned and exerted his revenge on President Thabo Mbeki whom he defeated for the ANC leadership in 2007.
Then earlier this year, following extensive upgrades to his home in Nkandla, Public Protector Thuli Madonsela ruled that Zuma had benefitted improperly from the works and ordered him to repay R7.81 million (US$543,000) from his pocket.
In a devastating ruling, the Constitutional Court then ruled that Zuma had “failed to uphold, defend and respect the Constitution as the supreme law of the land” through a “substantial disregard for the remedial action taken against him by the Public Protector in terms of her constitutional powers”.
Zuma survived an impeachment attempt, as his ANC used its majority to defeat the opposition motion, but the ANC would pay a price in municipal elections in August when it lost several local authorities, including Johannesburg and Pretoria, to the opposition Democratic Alliance.
The latest crisis, which exploded on Wednesday with the publication of Madonsela’s 355-page report into allegations of “state capture” coincided with opposition protests, which shut down parts of Pretoria.
Madonsela raised “serious concerns” that Zuma allowed a family of Indian businessmen – billionaire brothers Ajay, Atul and Rajesh Gupta – to influence the selection of senior cabinet ministers to benefit its own business interests.
The opposition Economic Freedom Fighters leader Julius Malema, speaking after Madonsela’s report was released following a court battle, said his party would return to Parliament with a motion to impeach Zuma, hoping this time that ANC MPs will reflect on the August vote haemorrhage and dump their leader before elections in 2019.
“Madonsela has called for a full judicial inquiry (appointed by the Chief Justice Mogoeng Mogoeng). Such an inquiry is likely to turn into a slow and painful public execution of Zuma, which will drag on perhaps until the 2019 election, shredding the ANC’s credibility to such an extent that it is hard to see how it will hang on to a majority. Unless, of course, the ANC finally does the rational thing and dumps Zuma right now,” said veteran journalist, Ray Hartley.
There is agreement among political commentators in South Africa that given Zuma’s past political and legal troubles, the latest crisis may be the tipping point of his presidency or at the very least it will usher a period of intense political instability.
“The report contains a lot of explosive information about the president. The calls for him to step down after this damaging evidence will grow louder,” said Mcebisi Ndletyana, politics professor at Johannesburg University.
Zuma has faced criticism from all sides in recent weeks, including from within his own party and the powerful labour movement. Several senior ANC officials attended a rally against Zuma on Wednesday, apparently cementing a bitter factional battle within the party between the president’s loyalists and so-called “reformers”.
The rally, in a cathedral in Pretoria, was led by a campaign group called Save South Africa, described by one local newspaper as “a who’s who of [anti-apartheid] struggle stalwarts‚ religious leaders‚ business people and civic activists”.
Sipho Pityana, chairman of AngloGold Ashanti, a major gold producer, and a leader of the group, said South Africans had “to come to terms with the fact that for as long as we have President Zuma as president of the country, it is not possible to turn the situation around”.
Former President Mbeki said the ANC’s national executive committee, as a collective, should take responsibility for the situation.
Mbeki said if he were to be asked: “What’s your opinion of Jacob Zuma? Do you think that he has to go in order for the ANC to increase their dropping vote share?” He would say: “No, I don’t. There are wrong things that are happening with the ANC but I think it’s the fault of the collective leadership.”
For instance, Mbeki said, “The ANC has a national executive committee: a body which takes decisions for the ANC between the conferences where the whole party meets, and that is the body that must take responsibility for what’s gone wrong. Even if you remove President Zuma, let us say just hypothetically, it could change nothing if you didn’t change the national executive committee.
“So you need to look at the whole national executive committee, the decision and actions they have taken and not taken. It is not just a matter of looking at the President of the ANC. I think it is basically a matter of looking at the national executive committee, which includes the president, to see what to do.”
Gwede Mantashe, the ANC secretary general, said the party was unable to recall Zuma but if people were calling on him to step down, it was “an appeal to his [Zuma’s] conscience”.
“If whatever structure says to me, ‘Gwede do the right thing (and resign’, that ceases to be a call on the ANC by the way. It’s a call to me. It is an appeal to my own conscience whether I am president or SG or treasurer general or just a member of the NEC. It’s a call to me to appeal to my own conscience.”
Earlier in the week, the National Education Health and Allied Workers Union, which has 235,000 members, called on the president to resign.
“While we believe that no single individual … can be solely responsible for all the … ills in our society and while we appreciate that Comrade Jacob Zuma has served our struggle well over the years‚ the organised working class cannot stand idly by … when it is clear that the revolution is taking a disastrous trajectory‚” the union said in a statement.
The Nelson Mandela Foundation, founded by the revered late president and anti-apartheid leader, has also sharply criticised Zuma, saying that “political meddling for private interests” during his tenure has weakened state institutions.
“It is painful for us … to bear witness to the wheels coming off the vehicle of our state,” a statement said.
The foundation was seen as significant as it has traditionally avoided making political statements and has instead focused on themes such as justice and equality, as well as the legacy of racism dating from South Africa’s era of white minority rule, which ended in 1994 when Mandela became the country’s first black president.
Zuma still holds many cards, however. Much of the union movement remains loyal, the ANC’s national executive committee is dominated by his supporters and there is still grassroots support for his presidency, especially in rural areas.
But depending on the pressure that the opposition mounts in the coming weeks, the ANC may be forced to hurry his exit before his term runs out. Some are, however, convinced it’s not a question of ‘if’ but ‘when’ he will go.
“It’s game over,” Hartley said. “Zuma cannot survive this. If, by some miracle, he conjures an extension of his stay in office, the party will not survive.”
ANC spokesman Zizi Kodwa insisted: “We have full confidence in the president. There is nowhere in the report in the remedial action where it suggests that the ANC must not have confidence in the president… we must deal with factual issues in the report.”
l Jason Burke contributed to this report