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.

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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 senior fellow at the Institute of Commonwealth Studies, University of London and author books including Understanding Eritrea and a biography of Robert Mugabe with Sue Onslow.

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