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Is President Zuma fatally wounded?

The South African president, the country’s economy and even the future stability of the political system, are now in question.

On Tuesday South African President Jacob Zuma faced a no confidence motion in Parliament, brought by the opposition Democratic Alliance. The DA leader, Mmusi Maimane, using unusually inflammatory language, described the president as a “sell-out”, for putting his personal interests above those of the country.

“Jacob Zuma sold out when, as deputy president, he took a R500,000 bribe from Schabir Shaik [his business associate],” Maimane declared. “Jacob Zuma sold out when he manipulated the National Prosecuting Authority to drop charges on 738 counts of corruption, bribery, money laundering and racketeering against him.”

In 2009 the director of public prosecutions dropped the corruption allegations against Zuma, arguing that there had been political interference in the case. This paved the way for Jacob Zuma to become president. The DA argues that the decision not to prosecute was “inherently irrational” and has been patiently attempting to have it reversed. Their challenge is currently before the courts.

While this may be an irritant for the president, it is far from being his major concern: Mr Zuma has tied up legal cases for years, and is likely to use the same tactic once more.

The DA’s no confidence motion was easily defeated. The ANC has an overwhelming majority in parliament and had no intention of allowing the opposition to skewer its leader. But Zuma’s troubles are far from over.

What is really threatening is that Jacob Zuma has lost the backing of key sections of his own party – the ANC – and the small, but still influential South African Communist Party.

The issue that has cost him their support is corruption. There is now an intense battle between the president and his minister of finance, Pravin Gordhan.

President Zuma was forced to recall Gordhan to the ministry in December last year after a disastrous episode in which he appointed a complete unknown (a local mayor who happened to be a Zuma loyalist) to run the South African economy. The result was a run on the Rand, while the value of shares plunged. The South African economy, already threatened by the credit rating agencies with “junk bond” status, looked on the brink of a major reverse.

Zuma met senior business and party leaders who spelled out in no uncertain terms what this would mean. Under intense pressure, Zuma had little option but to ask Gordhan to step in. It now appears that it was the last thing the president wanted.

Max du Preez, one of South Africa’s best-known commentators, has explained why the president was so reluctant. Gordhan had been head of the tax authority – the South African Revenue Service – before his previous stint as finance minister, which ended in 2009.

Gordhan had supervised the compilation of a dossier involving Jacob Zuma. This is said to contain what du Preez describes as “…dynamite allegations of corruption, fraud, front companies and foreign bank accounts against prominent benefactors of President Jacob Zuma.”

A letter was sent, asking the president to comment on the allegations. Faced with this threat, Zuma acted. The tax inspectors who launched the investigation were labelled a “rogue unit” and a new head of the Revenue Service was appointed – another Zuma loyalist.

A crack investigation team (the “Hawks”) recently turned the pressure up on Gordhan. He was presented with a list of 27 questions about his own behaviour. Gwede Mantashe, the ANC secretary-general, leaped to Gordhan’s defence, describing the Hawks letter as “a well-calculated destabilising plan with all the elements of disinformation, falsehoods and exaggerated facts”.

But Gordhan is no slouch. Like Zuma, he is not only a long-time member of the ANC and the Communist Party; he was once in the ANC’s intelligence service.

Aware of just how serious this attack could be, Gordhan upped the ante. Last Friday he threatened to resign as finance minister unless the head of the tax authority was removed. The presidency was forced to issue a statement saying that Gordhan would remain in his post; his job was not in jeopardy.

This game is being played for very high stakes. The South African president, the country’s economy and even the future stability of the political system, are now in question. Allistair Sparks, a veteran journalist, described the ANC as being in a state of “civil war”.

Jacob Zuma is beginning to lose ground. Although he still has plenty of important allies, others are wavering. For the ANC secretary general to come out publicly in support of Gordhan was a blow.

Despite being under pressure, Zuma is not to be underestimated. He was the head of the ANC’s intelligence service, trained by the KGB and east Germans. His network of contacts inside the ANC is unrivalled – particularly among his own ethnic group, the Zulu. He spent years inside jail as a political prisoner, and is determined never to see prison again.

If Jacob Zuma thought he was going down, he might take the temple down with him.

Martin Plaut is a fellow at the Institute of Commonwealth Studies, University of London. With Paul Holden, he is the author of Who Rules South Africa?

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Britain's commemoration of Partition is colonial white-washing in disguise

It’s much easier to focus on the indigenous perpetrators of religious violence than on the imperialist policies that facilitated it.

While in London a couple of weeks ago, I couldn’t help but notice a curious trend in the British media’s coverage of the upcoming 70th anniversary of the end of British colonial rule in the Indian subcontinent. It wasn’t the familiar think-pieces about "the jewel in the crown", thinly disguised nostalgia for empire masquerading as critiques of colonialism (see for example, The Conversation’s piece on how colonialism was traumatic for, wait for it, officials of the British Raj). It wasn’t the patronising judgements on how India and Pakistan have fared 70 years down the road, betraying the paternalistic attitude some of the British commentariat still harbours towards the former "colonies". It wasn’t even the Daily Mail’s tone-deaf and frankly racist story about 92 year old countess June Bedani and her “loyal Indian houseman” Muthukanna Shamugam, who doesn’t even speak a word of “Indian” (that’s just classic Daily Mail). What got my attention was the British media’s raging hard-on for Partition - a flurry of features, documentaries and TV specials about one of the biggest and bloodiest mass migrations of the 20th century.

Just take a look at the major headlines from the past couple of weeks - "They Captured And Forced Him Out Of His Home: This Isn’t Syria In 2017, It Was India In 1947" (Huffington Post UK); "Partition: 70 Years On" (The Guardian, BBC and Independent, each with a different subhead); "The Real Bloody Legacy Of Partition" (The Spectator); "Remembering Partition: 70 Years Since India-Pakistan Divide" (Daily Mail) and many more. It isn’t that - unlike some of my more reactionary compatriots - I believe that the Partition story shouldn’t be documented and spoken about. On the contrary, I think India and Pakistan have failed to grapple successfully with Partition’s scars and still festering wounds, and the way it still haunts both our domestic politics and our relationship with each other. But the overwhelming focus on the grisly details of Partition by the British press is deeply problematic, especially in its unsubtle erasure of British culpability in the violence. Even the Guardian’s Yasmin Khan, in one of the few pieces that actually talks about the British role in Partition, characterises the British government as “naive and even callous” rather than criminally negligent, and at least indirectly responsible thanks to its politics of "divide and rule". Of course, it’s much easier to focus on the indigenous perpetrators of religious violence than on the imperialist policies that facilitated it. That would require the sort of national soul-searching that, even 70 years on, makes many British citizens deeply uncomfortable.

Rose-tinted views of empire aside, the coverage of Indian and Pakistani independence by the British press is also notable in its sheer volume. Perhaps, as some commentators have suggested, this is because at a time of geopolitical decline and economic uncertainty, even the tainted legacy of colonialism is a welcome reminder of the time when Britain was the world’s reigning superpower. There is certainly some truth to that statement. But I suspect the Brexit government’s fantasies of Empire 2.0 may also have something to do with the relentless focus on India. There is a growing sentiment that in view of historic and cultural ties, a post-Brexit Britain will find natural allies and trade partners in Commonwealth countries such as India.

If that’s the case, British policy-makers and commentators are in for a reality check. The truth is that, despite some simmering resentment about colonialism, most Indians today do not care about the UK. Just take a look at the contrast between the British and Indian coverage of Independence Day. While there are a handful of the customary pieces about the independence struggle, the Indian press is largely focused on the here-and-now: India’s economic potential, its relationships with the US and China, the growing threat of illiberalism and Hindu nationalism. There is nary a mention of contemporary Britain.

This is not to say that modern India is free of the influence - both good and bad - of colonialism. Many of the institutions of Indian democracy were established under the British colonial system, or heavily influenced by Britain’s parliamentary democracy. This is reflected both in independent India’s commitment (in theory, if not always in practice) to the ideals of Western liberalism and secularism, as well as its colonial attitude towards significant sections of its own population.

The shadow of Lord Macaulay, the Scottish legislator who spent four eventful years in India from 1834 to 1838 and is considered one of the key architects of the British Raj, still looms large over the modern Indian state. You can see it in the Penal Code that he drafted, inherited by both independent India and Pakistan. You can see it in Indian bureaucracy, which still functions as a paternalistic, colonial administrative service. And you can see it in the Indian Anglophile elite, the product of an English education system that Macaulay designed to produce a class of Indians “Indian in blood and colour, but English in taste, in opinions, in morals, and in intellect.” It was this class of Anglophile Indians who inherited the reins of the Indian state after independence. It is us - because I too am a Macaulayputra (Macaulay’s child), as the Hindu right likes to call us. We congratulate ourselves on our liberalism and modernity even as we benefit from a system that enriched the few by impoverishing the many. This class of brown sahibs is now the favourite punching bag of a Hindu nationalism that we have allowed to fester in our complacency.

Still, ghosts of the past aside, the UK no longer holds sway over young India, even those in the Anglophile upper classes. Today’s young Indians look to the United States for their pop culture references, their global aspirations and even their politics, both liberal and conservative (see the Hindutva fringe’s obsession with Donald Trump and the alt-right). We still want to study in British universities (though increasingly strict visa rules make it a less attractive destination), but we’d rather work in and emigrate to the US, Canada or Australia. We drink coffee rather than tea (well, except for the thoroughly Indianised chai), watch Veep rather than Yes Minister, and listen to rap, not grime.

Macaulayputra insults aside, the British aren’t even the bogeymen of resurgent Hindu nationalism - that dubious status goes to the Mughal Empire. Whether this cultural turn towards America is a result of the United States’ cultural hegemony and economic imperialism is a topic for another day, but the special "cultural links" between India and the UK aren’t as robust as many Brits would like to think. Which is perhaps why the UK government is so intent on celebrating 2017 as the UK-India year of Culture.

Many in the UK believe that Brexit will lead to closer trade links between the two countries, but much of that optimism is one-sided. Just 1.7 per cent of British exports go to India, and Britain's immigration policy continues to rankle. This April, India allowed a bilateral investment deal to lapse, despite the best efforts of UK negotiators. With the Indian economy continuing to grow, set to push the UK out of the world’s five largest economies by 2022, the balance of power has shifted. 

The British press - and certain politicians - may continue to harbour sepia-tinted ideas of the British Raj and the "special relationship" between the two countries, but India has moved on. After 70 years, perhaps the UK will finally realise that India is no longer "the jewel in its crown". 


Bhanuj Kappal is a freelance journalist based in Mumbai.