As President Jacob Zuma approaches the end of his nine-year rule of South Africa, a former U.S. diplomat and a South African conflict resolution expert explain how the former freedom fighter has managed to unite his opposition and channel public anger.
President Jacob Zuma confirmed on February 14 that he stepping down as head of state after a day of intense pressure from peers in the African National Congress (ANC), South Africa’s dominant political party. He initially refused the ANC’s formal request, triggering ANC leadership to threaten a no-confidence vote, which would have forcibly removed Zuma from the presidency.
WikiTribune separately interviewed two experts who witnessed South Africa’s transition from apartheid to democracy. They agreed that Zuma’s position has become untenable, but offered different perspectives on what his failures say about post-apartheid South Africa.
A senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations in Washington D.C., John Campbell is a former U.S. diplomat who served in Pretoria and Cape Town from 1993 to 1996, witnessing the country’s transition to democracy as Nelson Mandela became president in 1994.
Visiting fellow at the Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies at the University of Notre Dame, Laurie Nathan was involved in the struggle against apartheid as part of the United Democratic Front (UDF). In the 1990s, he served as head of the Center for Conflict Resolution at the University of Cape Town, and as an advisor to the ANC on security and defense policy for the National Peace Accord.
Interviews have been edited for clarity and length.
WikiTribune: Are broader economic and social issues part of the anger directed at President Zuma?
Nathan: There are lots of reasons for opposition to Zuma within different factions – he has united different factions against him. Some are opposed to the way he has run the state, and its crony-capital nepotistic networks.
You also have a large group within the ANC that is opposed to Zuma because his disapproval publicly threatens the ANC’s ability to win the next general election in 2019. In addition, if you are not part of Zuma’s crony network you are excluded.
There are also those who are concerned about the damage Zuma’s done to the economy and international standing of the country. So Zuma has united a large group of individuals within the ruling alliance against him.
Campbell: The issue is that South Africa’s political process since the end of apartheid has been a bit remarkable. It really is a democracy conducted according to the rule of law, with independent institutions, particularly the judiciary, which has regularly ruled against Jacob Zuma.
Social and economic change has been much, much slower. The ownership of the economy continues to be dominated by whites.
So if there has been spectacular progress on the political front, on the social and economic front it has been very much slower.
How will this controversy – especially if Zuma doesn’t step down – affect the ANC going forward?
Campbell: There are several options. First of all, if Zuma refuses to step down there will almost certainly be a no-confidence vote in the parliament. If he loses the no-confidence vote then he is out, as is all of the cabinet.
A no-confidence measure has been tabled already, but by opposition parties. If Zuma refuses to resign I think there will be an ANC-sponsored no-confidence vote. The ANC won’t want to do that because it would at least temporarily split the party, and the ANC puts high value on party unity.
A second option is impeachment. Again that would need a majority vote in parliament.
What impeachment would do is remove Zuma but not the other members of the cabinet, and it would also strip Zuma of his pension rights.
Nathan: He will step down – really there’s no question about that – the question is when and on what terms?
Our political system is more similar to the UK system than the U.S. In most of Europe, and the UK, the party is bigger than the party leader. The party can recall the leader – the leader can’t withstand a party united. Zuma has to go because the ANC’s recalling him. What’s in doubt at this stage is what means is taken.
The ANC would much prefer to go the party route rather than the parliamentary route because the parliamentary route affords too much voice to opposition parties.
Zuma will no doubt want amnesty. He’s facing something like 700 charges including fraud and corruption, so he’s concerned that if he steps down they’re going to throw him in prison and I’m quite sure he intends to bargain for amnesty from prosecution. I think it’s not really possible that the ANC will grant that, though there’s a possibility of a pardon after conviction.
WikiTribune: What made Zuma popular in the first place?
Campbell: During the end of apartheid Jacob Zuma was deeply involved in Kwazulu Natal politics. He showed considerable political skill at the time.
Jacob Zuma is a politician capable of considerable charm. In the nine years or so that he has been head of state he has appealed to the rural poor particularly, and he has also emphasized his Zulu roots – through his multiple wives for example, or dancing in a leopard skin. All that is an affirmation of his African identity.
Nathan: Zuma was put there by an alliance of nationalists, socialists, and communists within the ANC when they got rid of [Thabo] Mbeki.
Mbeki as president had generated so much opposition and dislike that he effectively united an ANC alliance against him.
They selected Zuma to replace him partly because he held the Deputy President position, also because the left thought that Zuma would be compliant and would pursue a more left-wing agenda – which proved not to be the case. So Zuma got to be president by virtue of the ruling alliance putting him there.
WikiTribune: If we try to put current events into a broader history of post-apartheid South Africa, do you think anger against Zuma is tapping into a desire to protect South African democracy?
Campbell: Yes, certainly that’s an element in the popular distrust and dislike for Zuma.
It might be helpful to think about where Zuma continues to be popular, and where he is not. His popularity continues to be based on the rural poor, and particularly the Zulu ethnic group who are now a quarter of South Africa’s population. Where he is most disliked is in urban areas, among academics, journalists, big business, racial minorities, and also the black middle class.
Nathan: Yes, but don’t be romantic here. South Africa is held internationally, in the way you put it, as a model transition from authoritarian rule to democracy. But truthfully that would be applicable to the first decade of our democracy. Our second decade is an example of how not to do it.
South Africans across the political spectrum, if they are politically minded, are appalled at what’s gone on in South Africa and the transition. We regard our democracy as a failure now.
There’s no doubt that the groundswell of popular opposition to Zuma, and the ANC, is based on his compromising the rule of law, on the deep systemic corruption that he’s introduced, on an ethnocization of South African politics that is not part of our history at all. It’s on the failure of the government and of Zuma to attend to poverty and unemployment.
So I’m saying it’s not just about democracy. Zuma represents all that’s bad about about the country.
He epitomizes everything that we the people think is going wrong with the country.
Interviews have been edited for clarity and length.