Last week President Jacob Zuma must have thought things could hardly get any worse. The Constitutional Court, South Africa’s highest legal authority, had found against him – comprehensively.
As Professor Pierre de Vos, constitutional law expert at the University of Cape Town pointed out, the court ruled that the president had failed in his most basic duty: to uphold, defend and respect the Constitution as the supreme law of the land. In a unanimous ruling the judges found that Zuma had enriched himself by allowing millions of dollars worth of improvements to be made to his private country residence at Nkandla.
The president was forced to go on television to apologise to the nation. It cut little ice with the public, many of whom rejected what he had to say. Worse still, many of the president’s former comrades in the ANC came out against him.
Party members, some of whom spent years on Robben Island, declared it was time for the president to resign.
Ahmed Kathrada, who was among the eight ANC members sentenced to life imprisonment in the 1963-1964 Rivonia Trial, said that Zuma’s “continued stay as president will only serve to deepen the crisis of confidence in the government of the country”.
Kathrada was joined by Denis Goldberg who told the BBC’s Today Programme that Zuma should have “done something heroic” and resigned. Goldberg described the president’s apology as “insincere”.
Others ANC veterans took similar stands. Barbara Hogan, a former Minister of Public Enterprises, supported the critics. Ben Turok, who was jailed for fighting apartheid, declared he was deeply angered by what had taken place. “We have a situation where values of the president and his understanding of (the) constitution are wrong,” he said. “He (Zuma) doesn’t believe in constitutional democracy.”
As if the situation was not difficult enough, the trade union representing the military, SANDU, issued a media statement saying it no longer had confidence in the president as Commander in Chief, since he had failed to uphold the constitution.
This chorus of disapproval set the scene for what will play out over the coming week.
President Zuma’s fate will be considered by the ANC today, when the party holds a meeting, which is open to any member of its National Executive Committee. This will be the first chance for the whole ANC leadership to consider the matter. “There is deep anger within the party”, one long-standing party member told the New Statesman on Sunday.
ANC secretary general, Gwede Mantashe, said that their discussions would be the beginning of a process of consultation with the whole party and its allies in the trade unions and Communist Party.
While this is under way parliament is preparing to debate a motion of impeachment, brought by the leader of the opposition, Mmusi Maimane. Tuesday’s debate will be the first time in the history of a democratic South Africa that such a motion has been considered.
Zuma fights back
Although he is under intense pressure, Jacob Zuma shows no sign of buckling. He did not become leader of the ANC without learning how to defend himself. The president has begun rallying his supporters, who are in a majority on the NEC.
ANC insiders say that Zuma is warning that Parliament would be dissolved if he was asked to step down. Since this would threaten the job security of many MPs they are hardly likely to risk such a step.
Removing the president – as the ANC did in September 2008 to Thabo Mbeki – is thought to be too destabilising for the party. For this reason the ANC is thought likely to refuse to ask Zuma to step down.
Jacob Zuma is really only symptomatic of a wider malaise, that is being termed “state capture”. There is increasing concern that senior ANC officials abuse their official their positions to secure state contracts for their cronies. Corruption is so widespread that Gwede Mantashe warned that the country was in danger of becoming what he termed a “mafia state”.
President Zuma’s business associates, the Gupta family, has employed some of his closest relatives. In return the president is accused of giving them political cover. This included allowing the closure of South Africa’s main air-force base, so that a plane could land for a Gupta family wedding.
The real problem may lie elsewhere – in the group of provincial leaders known colloquially as the “premier league”. Their loyalty to Zuma has been solid, so far. In return he has looked the other way when allegations of their abuse come his way. As one commentator remarked: “The auditor-general shows year after year that we lose billions due to ANC government corruption, especially at provincial and local level, away from the attention of the media and civil society.”
But even black South Africans, who have been solidly loyal to the ANC for the past two decades, may be losing patience with this kind of behaviour. An opinion poll in the South African Sunday Times shows that just 27 per cent of black people in urban areas support the president – down from 43 per cent a year earlier.
The country is due to hold important local elections later this year. The ANC could lose control of key metropolitan areas – including the Johannesburg area, Pretoria and Port Elizabeth. If this was to happen it might just jolt the party of Mandela and Tambo into finally carrying out root and branch reforms. Otherwise the public might simply desert the party of liberation.