Last December, President Jacob Zuma embarked on a series of ill-advised cabinet reshuffles that have shaken South African politics to their core and sent the economy into freefall. ‘Nhlanhla-gate’ threatens to be Zuma’s Waterloo. Simon Allison and Xolela Mangcu weigh his future prospects.
The moment things began to go wrong for Jacob Zuma can be dated precisely: Wednesday afternoon, 9 December 2015. The South African president had just concluded a cabinet meeting. He wasn’t happy. He picked up the phone and issued an executive order.
South Africa, along with the president himself, is still reeling from the consequences of that order. Later, even senior cabinet members and ANC leaders would confess to first hearing of the president’s decision through the media.
On the phone, Zuma was communicating his decision to sack respected finance minister Nhlanhla Nene. Nene was to be replaced by David van Rooyen, a lowly backbencher with no financial experience, and virtually unknown outside the ruling party’s inner circle. So unknown, in fact, that official communications offered three different versions of his first name in initial press releases.
The decision caught the nation by surprise. Markets reacted in horror, with the rand losing 9% of its value against the dollar within days (the currency has recovered slightly since then, but still remains weakened). It took the intervention of a group of influential business people and bankers, including Patrice Motsepe and Maria Ramos, for Zuma to reverse his decision. On Sunday 13 December, the nation’s top business executives had a meeting with senior ANC leaders who then met with the president and prevailed on him to backtrack.
There was even dissent from within the ruling African National Congress (ANC), most notably from Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa and ANC secretary-general Gwede Mantashe, who both urged Zuma to change his mind.
Four days later, Zuma relented. Van Rooyen was moved to another portfolio, and replaced by former finance minister Pravin Gordhan. But the damage was already done, and Zuma’s reputation took a major knock. Things got worse for the president as more details of Nene’s sacking emerged, and it became clear that Nene was a victim of his principles: sacrificed for his reluctance to sanction a costly nuclear deal with Russia, and his opposition to South African Airways’ plan to restructure a $624m leasing deal with Airbus, pushed by SAA board chair Dudu Myeni. Myeni, a former school teacher catapulted to the upper reaches of public service, also happens to head the Jacob Zuma Foundation. The two are said to be close friends, alleged details of which provoked a stream of comments on social media.
Controversial too has been the apparent influence of the Guptas, a wealthy business family, in Zuma’s decision-making. Arriving in South Africa in 1993, the brothers Ajay, Atul and Rajesh (aka Tony), have been firm Zuma friends since at least 2003. Their business interests span the minerals and energy sector, as well as ICT, media and real estate.
Gupta’s companies have been the beneficiaries of large government contracts.
Worryingly, the Guptas are said to have a hand in major cabinet appointments, and are said to regularly summon ANC politicians to their four-mansion residence in upscale Saxonwold, Johannesburg.
Many cite the hiring of the Minister of Minerals and Energy, Mosebenzi Joseph Zwane last September as a keen example of Gupta influence inside the presidency. Replacing experienced Minerals minister, Ngoako Ramatlhodi at a time of almost unprecedented crisis, Zwane’s lack of previous experience in the mining sector strengthened perceptions that his appointment had been made at the behest of the Guptas.
The selection of David van Rooyen to the Treasury, it is alleged, was similarly a Gupta idea.
“Politically, [Nene’s dismissal] has proven to be the most serious and costly blunder of the democratic era. At this stage…it has left the Rand bruised, the market uncertain, and just about everyone in power fearing for their jobs,” concluded the Financial Mail in an editorial.
Zuma’s woes were compounded in the New Year by another unexpected decision. In early February, just days before a court hearing on the issue, the president announced that he would, after all, return some of the money spent on ‘security upgrades’ to his personal homestead in Nkandla. This was a dramatic about-face, although when and how much was to be repaid was not made clear.
Zuma and his allies have spent the last two years vehemently denying that he did anything wrong, in the wake of a scathing 2014 report from South Africa’s Public Protector, Thulisile Madonsela, which found that the upgrades – including a luxury guesthouse and a swimming pool – allowed Zuma to benefit unduly from taxpayers’ money.
Zuma was careful to clarify that his offer to “pay back the money”, as opposition parties have been demanding, was not an admission of guilt, but a gesture of political expediency: “Paying that money is not admitting anything wrong,” he said.
The Constitutional Court hearing suggested differently. Although a verdict has yet to be delivered – it is expected in August – Zuma lawyer, Jeremy Gauntlett, conceded in questioning that the Public Protector’s report, which called for Zuma to make restitution, is legally binding.
If the court does find against Zuma, and depending on the severity of the finding, opposition parties have indicated they will institute impeachment proceedings against the president. While these are almost certain to fail, given the ANC’s dominance in parliament – and in particular, the dominance of Zuma loyalists amongst ANC MPs – that impeachment is even on the cards is a sign of how far Zuma’s star has fallen.
“Zuma is certainly weaker than he was on the day before he fired Nene. That compromised his position. Not only within the party, but outside the party too it fuelled a growing image crisis on his part. His U-turn on Nkandla has added to his woes, and all of this happened in a climate in which already people were talking about how he was becoming a liability, how scandal-prone he is, and how he is causing collateral damage to the ANC brand,” said political analyst Aubrey Matshiqi.
In court, Gauntlett spoke as the lawyer of a truly fearful man: “This is a delicate time in a dangerous year. It will be wrong if this court makes a ruling which may result in a call for impeachment. He [Democratic Alliance] and the EFF may try to impeach. Some have argued that the president was defiant…but it was an error in law.”
In Gauntlett, Zuma has appointed an advocate for whom the ANC in united in its distaste. Accused by cadre of being representative of “anti-transformation” jurisprudence, the party had rejected Gauntlett’s nomination to the Constitutional Court. In legal circles, black advocates received news of Gauntlett’s appointment at a time of heightened anger over white domination and institutionalised discrimination in the profession.
Zuma’s chances when the case is heard in March do not look very good – especially if Gauntlett’s desperate overtures to the Constitutional Court are anything to go by. It gets worse if one observes the court’s body language. Chief Justice, Sandile Ngcobo, whom Zuma appointed over the head of the far more experienced Dikgang Moseneke (now Deputy Chief Justice), has failed to live to whatever script Zuma had in store for him. Indeed, during the last hearing, it was Ngcobo who articulated the charge of possible violation of the oath of office by the president.
There is some historical irony here: in 2008, Judge Chris Nicholson ruled that Thabo Mbeki had abused his office by prosecuting Zuma for corruption. While Nicholson’s ruling was later overturned by the Supreme Court of Appeal – the nation’s second highest court – the ANC had already set in train Mbeki’s removal.
For Zuma, that he now faces the highest court in the land must appear increasingly as an especially vengeful case of history repeating itself.
There is chatter in some ANC circles about how and whether to instigate recall proceedings, while opposition parties are calling for his head.
At a chaotic State of the Nation Address on 11 February, the opposition Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) walked out in protest at Zuma’s leadership.
“I am leaving. I cannot debate what you presented here because you are not a legitimate president. Bye bye!” said EFF commander-in-chief Julius Malema.
Meanwhile, Democratic Alliance leader Mmusi Maimane has scheduled a Motion of No Confidence in the president, to be debated on 1 March. “With President Zuma at the head of our economy‚ the hope of a better life for all South Africans will never become a reality,” said Maimane.
Analysts warn, however, that for all his troubles it is still too early to write Zuma off. “Recall is not imminent. Zuma is not as isolated within the party as Mbeki was. Zuma is still in control of the party, even if that control is on the wane,” said Matshiqi.
Mbeki’s brother Moeletsi Mbeki, a prominent political analyst in his own right, concurs. “I don’t think there are any calls from inside the ANC for Zuma to go. I don’t think there is a chance of him leaving before the end of his term [in 2019],” said Mbeki.
Zuma’s popularity, or otherwise, will be tested soon as South Africans vote in local elections, scheduled to begin in May. An exceptionally poor performance from the ANC may force the party to rethink its leadership, while both the DA and the EFF are hoping that a strong showing will put them in pole position to make a real challenge in the 2019 general election.
Not that Zuma’s departure would necessarily solve anything. “Anyone who believes the problems of this country are limited to one man is living in fantasy land,” said Steven Friedman, head of the Center for the Study of Democracy.
“If Zuma is forced to resign tomorrow, not a single problem will be solved … We haven’t settled the question of race, or how you deal with poverty and inequality while ensuring the economy is still healthy, and these are issues which still need to be faced by business and labour and universities.”
As if to underscore Friedman’s point, ongoing student protests, under the banner of the #FeesMustFall movement, forced some universities to delay the beginning of classes. The protests are taking on an increasingly racial tone, fracturing South Africa’s image of itself as the “rainbow nation”. At the universities of the Witwatersrand and Cape Town, some black students have become vociferously critical of whites.
There is no sign of the student movement’s momentum fading. The big question is whether this decentralised movement will become politicised, and if so, which party will benefit.
Attempts late last year to morph #FeesMustFall into #ZumaMustFall met with limited success, and this year’s protests have remained focused on university administrations rather than government. But given Zuma’s increasing unpopularity, this seems likely to change, providing another headache for Zuma.
At the same time, the country is enduring one of the worst droughts in its history, leading to water shortages in some areas and food price hikes. Already, the World Bank estimates that the drought has caused some 50,000 people to fall back below the poverty line, with the situation likely to get worse before it gets better. In the end, this could turn out to be Zuma’s greatest challenge, with the link between economic decline and political resistance well-established.
South Africa’s immediate challenges come on several different fronts: political, social and economic. While the country has been in crisis before, it hasn’t often had to deal with so many crises at the same time. While there’s no obvious solution, one thing is clear: President Zuma, fighting for his political life, is not in the best position to help.