It was the dead of night when South African President Jacob Zuma took an axe to his cabinet, dismissing or shuffling 20 ministers and deputy ministers at once. South Africans woke to the news that a key figure in government, Finance Minister Pravin Gordhan, had been sacked.
The first news of what had taken place was not carried by the state broadcaster, but a private channel – ANN7 – owned by Zuma’s financial supporters, the Gupta family. The television station gleefully broke into its regular coverage to deliver every twist and turn of the story.
Senior African National Congress leaders – including the secretary general Gwede Mantashe and deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa – were left stunned. Previously they had been consulted about even minor cabinet changes. Now they were simply informed.
The shock was palpable. “The Zuma presidency has ended. The Zuma dictatorship has begun,” wrote commentator Richard Poplak.
And he was right. This was no simple cabinet reshuffle. It was the last, desperate roll of the dice by a President who faces 783 charges of corruption. Zuma seems determined never to face jail again and to guard those who have funded him. This means protecting the Guptas, at whatever cost.
The Gupta family and the President
Since they arrived in South Africa in from India in 1993 to establish a modest computer company, the Gupta family has become one of the richest and most influential in the country. ANC bigwigs reportedly come and go from their palatial home. Today it is guarded by an armoured car and private security forces.
The Guptas relocated to Dubai in April 2016, allegedly taking with them vast sums of money. But their major South African operations were hampered by the banks, which closed their firms’ accounts, fearing that some of their transactions were questionable.
This is where Pravin Gordhan comes in. The Finance Minister took the issue to court, with documents showing that members of the Gupta family, and companies they control, were involved in suspicious transactions worth R6.8bn (around £400m). Incredibly, as the case progressed, Gordhan found himself facing an attempt by his own President to join the case – on behalf of the Guptas! When the courts rejected this, Zuma was left with one option to save his financiers: sack Gordhan.
A battle for the soul of the ANC
The confrontation now under way will decide the future of the ANC, the party that has ruled South Africa since the end of apartheid. This battle too has enormous ramifications for the country.
On the one side are the president’s critics. They now include:
- Three of the six most senior leaders of the party
- A growing number of ANC MPs as well as most of the opposition, led by the centrist Democratic Alliance and the revolutionary socialist Economic Freedom Fighters, who have called for a no-confidence vote in Parliament.
- The ANC’s allies in the Communist Party, who have called for the president to go: “He must resign with immediate effect,” said the SACP’s second deputy general secretary Solly Mapaila.
- The churches, with Anglican churches calling for Zuma’s resignation
- Civil organisation, led by a movement, Save South Africa, that is organising mass demonstrations outside the Treasury.
In the other corner is President Zuma and his allies. They are not inconsiderable and include:
- A number of senior ANC officials, including Jessie Duarte, the party’s deputy general secretary, who said it was “time to unite behind” the cabinet reshuffle.
- Senior provincial officials of the ANC, who are known as the “Premier League”, who owe their positions to the president.
- Many members of parliament, who also believe their careers depend on Zuma. It is far from clear that they will support a vote of no-confidence when it is heard in about a weeks’ time.
Zuma’s invisible allies
There are other covert forces who will be supporting the president. It should not be forgotten that President Zuma ran the ANC’s intelligence operation while in exile. He has placed many allies in South Africa’s security agencies, who are only too willing to resort to a range of “black-ops” to bolster their leader.
An intelligence report was produced to discredit Gordhan while he was abroad, suggesting that he had been holding meetings in London to plot Zuma’s downfall. The alleged plot – known as “Operation Check Mate” – had little substance, but it gave Zuma an excuse to summon him back home.
The Guptas have also deployed the resources of the British PR firm, Bell Pottinger, to support their cause.
Zuma is threatening to implement a far more radical programme, now that he has obstructive colleagues out of the way. This could include a massive programme of Russian nuclear power plants and Mugabe-style land seizures.
He is also targeting what is termed “White Monopoly Capital”. One of South Africa’s leading white businessmen, Johann Rupert, has complained vociferously about being targeted by the firm on social media to draw attention away from the Guptas (Bell Pottinger has denied any involvement in a social media campaign).
South Africans are preparing for a rough ride as fight to they protect their democracy. “South Africans cannot rely solely on party political or parliamentary processes for democratic renewal,” wrote Mzukisi Qobo, a political risk analyst. “Zuma has declared war on society and the economy. The ultimate battle can only be won on the streets, through conscious organisation, and waves of protests that are designed to make it difficult for Zuma’s government to function.”
The next few weeks will be critical if Nelson Mandela’s vision of a country at peace with itself is to survive.