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The crisis deepens

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The crisis deepens

While the findings in the much-awaited Public Protector’s report are not sufficient to trigger a presidential recall, they do set the stage for events that could well provoke Zuma’s ouster. John Dludlu paints some scenarios for 2017.

Unlike many world leaders, including his predecessors Nelson Mandela, Thabo Mbeki and Kgalema Motlanthe, President Jacob Zuma is not known for vacationing outside the country at the end of a long year. Instead, he retreats to his rural homestead of Nkandla in his native province of KwaZulu Natal. There, he meets villagers and hangers-on, who come without appointment, to hear their grievances, before throwing a lavish Christmas party where he hands out gifts, and then reads out a plodding New Year message on the national broadcaster, SABC, on 31 December.

He might be reconsidering this routine this year, as he faces the fight of his life – avoiding jail, and staying in office until he and his faction find a reliable successor. His fightback plan is likely to be vicious; its main casualty will be South Africa’s fragile economy.

For Zuma, 2016 is ending as badly as it started – namely, not on his terms. In January, he was forced to reappoint his bête noir, Pravin Gordhan, back to the Finance Ministry; his choice Des van Rooyen, the man hastily chosen to succeed Nhlanhla Nene, was rejected, capping a four-day blitz of (mis-)appointments that rocked the financial markets, and ultimately led to the return of Gordhan, who he had demoted to local government minister in 2014. On 7 November, Gordhan was named Business Leader of The Year by the Sunday Times, honoured for helping South Africa avoid a ratings downgrade and a recession. The award, normally given to a businessman, is a recognition of Gordhan’s accidental role as champion of what he himself describes as “Mandela’s values” – a buffer against those wanting to loot.

At the same event, Thabo Mbeki, the guest speaker, told 100 top business leaders to act urgently in arresting the crisis facing his country. A week earlier, Mbeki had penned a letter, only the second since he was ousted by Zuma in 2007, asking Zuma to listen to 101 ANC veterans voicing strong concerns about the direction the country was taking. These veterans (not to be confused with the military veterans) include Mandela’s prison inmates, and respected liberation fighters, more senior than the current crop of ANC leaders.

On 10 November, Zuma survived the fifth “vote of no confidence” in parliament, helped by a party system that prioritises the party line for MPs over their constituencies or consciences. If 2016 has been about survival, next year strongly portends the drama of an end-game. Begun in the courts, this last act will almost certainly be determined there. In March, he was forced by the Constitutional Court, the nation’s highest court, to pay back almost R8 million spent by the state in building him a swimming pool, reception area and a cattle kraal – features that have nothing to do with his security. And then in April, a high court ruled that 783 charges of corruption, racketeering and fraud be reinstated as they had been irrationally dropped in 2009. Zuma is now appealing the ruling. If he loses that appeal when it comes up next March, the very spectre of a court case of that magnitude could well trigger the formal proceedings of his ouster.

State of Capture – extracts

On whether Zuma allowed the Guptas and his son to be involved in the removal and appointment of the finance minister last December:

“…It’s worrying that the Gupta family was aware or may have been aware that Minister Nene was removed 6 weeks after Deputy Minister Jonas advised him that he had been allegedly offered a job by the Gupta family in exchange for extending favours to their family business.”

“…There seems to be no evidence showing that Mr Jonas’s allegations that he was offered money and a ministerial post in exchange for favours were ever investigated by the Executive (Zuma)…” “A similar duty is imposed and possibly violated in relation to the allegations that were made by Mr Maseko about his removal. The same applies to persistent allegations regarding an alleged cozy relationship between Mr Brian Molefe and the Gupta family. In this case it is worth noting that such allegations are backed by evidence and a source of concern that nothing seems to have been done regardless of the duty…” 

The political signals are not promising either. On 3 August, under his helm, black voters rejected the ANC in three major cities – Pretoria, Port Elizabeth and Johannesburg – ensuring that the Democratic Alliance (DA) took control of more than 50% of municipal budgets, a first since 1994.

Most of his defeats have been on “away games” – mostly the law courts and institutions of the rule of law – and this is where his downfall in 2017 will be orchestrated. His enforcers have been losing one case after another in law courts. The most embarrassing losses have included: the withdrawal of fraud charges against Gordhan in November; withdrawal of fraud charges against Robert McBride, a struggle hero, and his subsequent reinstatement to his job as head of the police watchdog; his two “protectors” at the National Prosecuting Authority (NPA) – Nomgcobo Jiba and Lawrence Mrwebi – being struck off the roll of advocates by a court order, which means Zuma now has to suspend them; his chief propagandist at the SABC, Hlaudi Motsoeneng, losing his court bid to stay in his job as chief operations officer; and the high court has ruled that South Africa’s decision to allow Omar al-Bashir, Sudan’s president, to sneak out of the country instead of arresting him was unlawful. In response, Pretoria is appealing the decision and has given notice of withdrawal from the International Criminal Court (ICC).

On the streets, the anti-Zuma forces are turning into a movement, gaining traction daily. On the day Gordhan was to appear in court, thousands of South Africans held protests on the streets of Pretoria, the capital, in support of the finance minister. A day later, Julius Malema, the fiery leader of the radical Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF), led marchers to the Union Buildings, the seat of government, demanding Zuma’s resignation. Zuma wasn’t in office. He was on an official visit to Zimbabwe, where his counterpart Robert Mugabe reminded him how much “we need each other now”. Business, organised around the Save South Africa movement, a lobby started by AngloGold Ashanti chairman Sipho Pityana, to get Zuma to resign, is gaining momentum; it now has a website, and a structured campaign to achieve its goal.

After the ConCourt ruling and the local government losses, the most bruising attack on the Zuma forces has come from Thuli Madonsela, the former public ombudsman, who on 2 November released her long-awaited State of Capture report. It was she who sowed the seeds of the ConCourt ruling on Nkandla when she found that Zuma and his family had unduly benefited from non-security upgrades at their private home.

The report was commissioned after a Catholic priest, Stan Muyebe, lodged a formal complaint with her office, asking her to investigate allegations, made by Mcebisi Jonas, Gordhan’s deputy, that he had been offered Nene’s job by the Guptas (Zuma’s friends and family business associates) weeks before the latter was sacked last December as finance minister. After Jonas, who rejected the offer, came out, two other ANC personalities followed suit, turning rumour into a serious concern: James Maseko, a former government spokesman, and Vytjie Mentor, a former ANC MP, disclosed how they were pressured to swing advertising and business deals in favour of the Guptas, allegedly with Zuma’s knowledge. Maseko was asked to divert advertising towards a Gupta newspaper, The New Age (TNA), and Mentor was offered a ministerial job if she reassigned an airline route to a Gupta-linked company.

A former member of the ANC, Madonsela completed her nonrenewable contract as ombudsman on 15 October. Her report, which investigated allegations that the Gupta family have undue influence on senior-level government appointments and contracts, was completed under difficult circumstances. For a start, her office didn’t have enough funds to carry this out. When it finally received a much-needed R1.5 million (about $104,000) cash injection, Madonsela had run out of time. And, after being stonewalled by Zuma and his lawyers, in a fourhour interview, Zuma and his two ministers tried, but failed, to delay the report’s release through law courts. The report was released on 2 November, after Zuma inexplicably abandoned his challenge, leaving his ministers – Mosebenzi Zwane (mines) and Van Rooyen (municipalities) – in the lurch.

Thanks in part to resource constraints, the report is inconclusive. But it makes sufficiently serious observations (rather than reaching conclusive findings) to warrant a fuller further probe. That probe will come via a commission of inquiry with strict timeframes. Significantly, the chairman of the inquiry is to be appointed by the Chief Justice (president of the ConCourt) and the name has to be announced by Zuma.

Typically, commissions are appointed by the president, and terms are decided by him too, and their budget comes from the justice ministry. So, Madonsela’s recommendations mean several things: first, she doesn’t trust Zuma, the subject of the probe, to place public above personal interests; second and maybe inadvertently, she doesn’t trust her successor (Busisiwe Mkhwebane); third, by appealing directly to the head of the highest court, she wants to stop Zuma from attempting any delaying tactics that could allow him to run out his term before the probe; and fourth, because she doesn’t trust the justice ministry to adequately resource such a commission, she’s directed that the National Treasury (NT) adequately funds it.

Unlike other departments, the NT, which reports to Gordhan, derives its powers directly from the Constitution, which makes it something of a super-department and, in part, explains the resentment against it from proZuma forces.

The makings of Zuma’s fightback plan

Clearly, Zuma is in a corner, as is his faction of the ANC. He was here in 2005 when he was accused (and cleared) of raping Fezeka Kuzwayo, the late daughter of his friend, and when after Mbeki fired him for being implicated in a corruption trial of Schabir Shaik, his former financial adviser, and from which the 783 charges arise. Since then, he’s weathered more political storms. Out of government, he staged a forceful fightback that would oust Mbeki as ANC president in 2007 and, a year later, as South Africa’s president.

The playbook, likely to be reenacted with minor alterations given the fact he now has formal force, is straightforward. First, portray yourself as a victim; second, build a coalition around the fear factor; third, marshal the forces including state and parastate organs; and fourth, don’t forget you’ve nothing to lose, but everything to gain. This is how he fought in 2007, leading to Mbeki’s ouster, and this is how he’s likely to fight again in 2017. And, the casualty then, as next year, will be the economy, which will remain stuck in a low-growth mode.

Madonsela’s report is a serious body blow. But it is not as bad as what looms at the commission of inquiry. The report largely looked at what happened in the last year. If set up as Madonsela would want it, the inquiry’s scope could go as far back as the past seven years of Zuma’s rule. Whilst the State of Capture report implicates four parastatals, the commission is likely to survey more of the hundreds of state-owned companies. A commission will have powers to subpoena witnesses, and offer them protection from reprisals, meaning that all kinds of rivals and disgruntled elements from Zuma’s past (both private and political) could emerge. That could spell more embarrassment for Zuma, his cohorts and a beleaguered ANC.

On 5 November, he gave hints of his fightback plan. Addressing a rally at Dumbe in his home province, he told supporters that he doesn’t fear jail (having served 10 years on Robben Island). Significantly, he ridiculed Mbeki’s letter. Unlike his successor, Motlanthe, Mbeki has sought to stay out of domestic politics since his recall in 2008. His letter was a well-considered intervention, and his voice is still important – a fact that Zuma overlooks at his own peril.

The other element of the fightback plan is to employ Stalinist tactics: split hairs by presenting arguments of protocol and procedure, carrying out the bureaucratic time-wasting that Mbeki warned against in his letter… As an inkling of this, the Party’s response to the veterans’ appeal was to direct them to raise their concerns through ANC structures, meaning Zuma’s sphere of influence, while darkly insinuating that Mbeki leaked the letter. The fact is: Mbeki’s letter, like the position of the veterans, is reflective of the mood on the ground and requires serious consideration.

The Stalinist tactics include seeking a judicial review of Madonsela’s report. On 8 November, the ANC working committee – a structure that Zuma allies dominate – laid the basis for this, by acknowledging the right of the implicated to seek judicial review including invoking the powers of the president to appoint commissions of inquiry.

This is likely to buy Zuma more time. This will, most likely, see the 30-day timeline Madonsela set being missed, as the haggling continues in courts. Still, it will merely postpone the inevitable.

South Africa’s Minister of Finance Pravin Gordhan (c), walks from the Finance Ministry to the South African parliament, accompanied by officials, to deliver the 2016 budget speech


“This needs to be looked at in relation to a possible conflict of interest between the President as head of state and his private interest.” State of Capture 


Related to this will be mudslinging by his enemies, and what The Economist calls post-truth politics – meaning, repeating false things enough for them to start sounding like truth. Ahead of the 2007 ANC conference, Zuma sought to portray Mbeki as part of a wider conspiracy seeking to frustrate his path to power; most believed the plot story. Most recently, his allies have falsely accused Madonsela of being a CIA spy, and that her office was foreign-funded as part of this tactic. On 10 November, his supporters characterised the no-confidence vote as part of regime change tactics by the Western powers, seeking to punish Zuma for his alliance with BRICS and efforts to plunder South Africa’s mineral wealth.

Significantly, though, Zuma still exercises an octopus-like grip on state security machinery, which is supported by a clumsy NPA. This is a key punitive lever against his enemies and emerging dissenters. Gordhan, who’s been given a reprieve, still faces prosecution for allegations of having illegally set up a spy unit within the tax-collecting authority when he was the head of SARS. The same NPA has charged Malema, using an apartheid-era law, for inciting violence when campaigning.

On the political front, the “premier league”, the ANC chairmen of Mpumalanga, Free State and North West provinces, remains intact, and in control of the ANC women’s, youth and military wings, and is hard at work to get Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma elected as Zuma’s successor. Zuma’s allies are also strong in the party’s executive committee.

His end, if it comes next year will be the culmination of serial defeats inflicted in “away games” – court decisions arising from challenges by NGOs such as Freedom Under Law (headed by ex-ConCourt judge Johann Kriegler), the Helen Suzman Foundation and/or church clerics like Muyebe. The commission of inquiry will inflict pain on Zuma, but it will be slow and not fatal. Every disclosure will hurt and embarrass. His friends, the Guptas, are packing up: they’re selling their business interests in South Africa.

The decision of the full bench of the Supreme Court of Appeal next March on whether the 783 charges against him are reinstated is the key to Zuma’s political future. If reinstated, it will mark the beginning of the end for him, forcing the hand of the ANC to act against him. As his energies are focused on survival, the economy will continue suffering from a lack of attention. Occasionally, he will call a “summit” to appease his detractors and appear in charge; but nothing serious. 

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