Getting Rid Of Zuma Won’t Cure South Africa

Roger Boyes Image Via The Times

PRETORIA, SOUTH AFRICA (THE TIMES) -- According to the quantum rules of African politics, Jacob Zuma is both alive and dead, gone and not-gone, the Schrödinger’s cat of Pretoria. Nothing could better sum up the past nine years of his kleptocratic rule than the manner of his going, his determination to strike a sleazy deal that could buy him immunity and spare him jail.

It is not just the African National Congress — the movement that gave the former goatherd an education, an ideology and a fortune — that he is playing for fools. After the defeat of apartheid, South Africa became a beacon of democracy for a continent. Today, because of Zuma’s indolent and plundering governance, it has become one of the world’s most unequal societies. If Zuma is not replaced quickly, and the signs are that he thinks he can survive a bit longer by threatening to rip apart the ANC, then 2018 will go down as the year that hope withered in South Africa.

White rule ended in 1994 but the rot set in earlier, in 1985, when international banks started to cut off loans. That was partly because of foreign sanctions but largely because confidence had evaporated in a mismanaged economy. Investment had stalled, the currency was collapsing and the arrogant political class was sitting on a powder keg. South Africa had to change drastically and to general European amazement the revolutionaries of the ANC, some of them self-taught in the cells of Robben Island, made a good fist out of steering the economy. Public spending was cut, debt paid down. Since 1994 some three million houses have been built and a social welfare system introduced. Not all of that modernisation was down to Nelson Mandela or his successor as president, Thabo Mbeki. It was on Zuma’s watch, in 2010, that South Africa was invited to join the BRICS, the club of emerging economies including Brazil, Russia, India and China.

But the fact is that, under Zuma, South Africa has lost its sheen as Africa’s natural leader. Mandela established the idea that the country could be a bridge-builder between nations (it brokered the 1999 deal between Britain, the US and Libya to hand over the Lockerbie suspects). By contrast Zuma has focused chiefly on opposing western positions on Zimbabwe and Syria and helping President Omar al-Bashir of Sudan to resist the International Criminal Court. He spent only three months training in Moscow in Soviet days but he still has a natural sympathy for Russian strategic positions.

One measure of South Africa’s ability to project power — the armed forces — have been run down to such a degree that they struggle to maintain border patrol functions. There is still a high incidence of HIV/Aids infection among the rank and file. The idea that Mr Zuma would manufacture a reason to declare a state of emergency and bring the army into play was always a non-starter; there is no great love for him in the barracks.

Despite his strenuous efforts to hollow out institutions and to politicise the police, South Africa remains a robust democracy. The reluctance to push him more forcefully from office has nothing to do with his status as one of the founding fathers of the ANC or as a man who can still mobilise the grassroots of the movement.

Cyril Ramaphosa, the president-in-waiting, believes he needs a united ANC to win the 2019 national elections and that Zuma has the potential to split it. Yet if the ANC is to reform, if South Africa is to move forward, the movement has to divide. The monolithic retro-revolutionary groupings served a purpose in Africa during the first years of decolonisation when they forged a consensus among divergent ethnic, tribal and cultural traditions. Now, across the continent, they are holding states back: that consensus all too often blurs into back-handers and cronyism.

How else does a politician like Zuma, with hundreds of corruption charges hanging over him, get to stay in office? By the same mechanism that Uhuru Kenyatta of Kenya was able to win the 2013 election despite having been indicted by the International Criminal Court two years earlier.

African governance is at a low ebb. The expectation that holding office will neutralise or bury any little legal difficulty is what taints the idea of Africa Rising, the notion that economic growth and democratic accountablity will somehow march in step to the greater glory of the continent. That’s why Zuma has won eight parliamentary votes of no confidence and may be gambling that he can soon win another. The ANC created Zuma, and accepted his casual, monarchical use of public funds. The duty of its heir apparent Ramaphosa is now quite clear: to make a clean break with the Big Man, leader-takes-all philosophy, to end not only the corruption of the ruling class but also its unchecked spendthrift ways.

Ramaphosa demands action now from Zuma but seems to be satisfied with that very South African response of “Now-Now”, meaning not just yet. That is not good enough, and while Ramaphosa may believe he is behaving in a statesmanlike way he is in fact eroding his personal authority and the ability to lead the more modern and honourable South Africa that the memory of Nelson Mandela demands.

Africa is watching closely how Ramaphosa deals with this succession crisis. He must put his foot down. Zuma should go before the month is out and consult his lawyers before preparing to face the first of many trials.