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15 February 2018updated 24 Jun 2021 12:26pm

Jacob Zuma took South Africa to the precipice – and the ANC took it back

The end of the Zuma era has left South Africa both damaged and strengthened.

By Martin Plaut

It was late on Wednesday night before President Zuma finally went on South African television to resign. His final presidential speech was characteristic of the man: opening with off the cuff jokes with the waiting journalists. “Are you tired? He, he, he,” he chuckled, before settling down to reading his prepared text. With a motion of no-confidence scheduled for Thursday in parliament, and his key financial backers being taken into custody, he had few other options. 

The end of the Zuma era has left South Africa both damaged and strengthened. Damaged in that the ruling African National Congress has for the second time had to fire a sitting President. Thabo Mbeki was sacked (or “re-deployed” in ANC jargon) in 2008. Now Zuma has had the same treatment. Finally, he conceded defeat rather than become the first South African head of state to be removed by a no-confidence vote.

Yet the country is also strengthened because, when the chips were down, almost everyone played by the rules. The ANC has been deeply divided over how to proceed. Its president, Cyril Ramaphosa, was elected in December by a whisker (2,440 votes to 2,261) and has a narrow majority in the party. Yet very few took to the streets or threatened violence. “No life should be lost in my name,” he told the audience.

Instead, the ANC held interminable party meetings, finally deciding after hours of gruelling debate that Zuma had to go. For days he refused and the party had to place the matter before Parliament. In the end Zuma jumped before he was pushed.

The demon of tribalism

The only person who had flirted with going beyond the parameters of the Constitution was Zuma himself. He was accused of committing what is probably the most heinous crime in the ANC lexicon: tribalism. If the ANC’s allies, the South African Communist Party are to be believed, Zuma was prepared to mobilise Zulu militia to prop up his cause. A spokesman for Zuma called the allegations without merit.

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“The South African Communist Party condemns tribalism in the strongest terms possible and the ethnic mobilisation, including that of Amabutho (Zulu regiments) that President Jacob Zuma has apparently engaged in as part of his plan to continue overstaying his welcome in office,” the party said in an official statement. It called on all South Africans to “unite in defence of our country and not allow him to go down with our hard-won democracy.” 

It was a cry of desperation. Zuma has revelled in his Zulu roots. His supporters hailed him as “100 per cent Zulu boy,” and he did nothing to dissuade them. But to mobilise the Zulu regiments would have taken matters to another level. Any South African who remembers the terrible events that surrounded the country’s first non-racial election in 1994 will recall the slaughter that took place in KwaZulu-Natal. The Zulu-based Inkatha Freedom Party mobilised the regiments to try to keep the ANC from taking seats in the province. Thousands died in the clashes. Now, warned the Communists, Zuma appeared about to turn to the same militia.

Everyone know that ethnicity plays a role in the ANC, but the organisation was founded in 1912 precisely to overcome these tensions. As Pixley ka Iska Seme – who had done so much to bring the delegates together at the founding conference said: “The demon of racialism, the aberrations of the Xhosa – Fingo feud, the animosity that exists between the Zulus and the Tongas, between the Basuthos and every other Native must be buried and forgotten; it has shed among us sufficient blood! We are one people.” Throughout its century of existence, the ANC has stood by this principle. By taking his resignation to the brink he was putting that legacy in danger.

The nuclear question

But why did Zuma hang on to power with such grim determination? It was not simply that he faces many historic corruption charges (he maintains his innocence). Nor was it that he wants to protect the once-influential Gupta family, who backed the president and his family. Some of the Guptas have already been arrested; further arrests are anticipated. But there is a strong belief in South Africa that something more that drove the president.

At this point the talk turned to another explanation: one that involves nuclear power. President Zuma struck a deal with President Putin to supply a string of nuclear power stations at a colossal price. Mark Swilling, Professor at the School of Public Leadership of Stellenbosch University, wrote that the stations would cost South Africa R1.2-trillion (£73bn), with annual repayments of R100bn (£6.1bn). The mine from which the uranium would come was owned by the Guptas.

Ministers gagged at the cost, which was considered unpayable. A string of cabinet ministers resisted, all of whom Zuma sacked. Explaining why he was so set on doing a deal with Moscow, the president argued that the Soviet Union was the only power that had stood by the ANC during the apartheid years. “We were trained by the Soviet Union. They gave us weapons. We fought and we were liberated.”

Others look to another explanation. Professor Swilling claims that people privy to talks to remove the president believe that “Zuma is terrified, and that this has got something to do with the nuclear deal…Have the Russians threatened him or his family in some way?” 

The British connection

The entire Zuma saga has a strong British connection. The disgraced public relations firm, Bell Pottinger, collapsed after revelations that it had stoked racial tensions to try to defend the Guptas.

Lord Peter Hain has also raised concerns that UK banks might have “wittingly or unwittingly” handled illicit funds linked to the Gupta family via Hong Kong and Dubai.

These issues will take time to unravel, with investigations in Britain and the USA. In the end, Jacob Zuma gave up the fight. As so often has been the case in South Africa’s long and deeply troubled history, its key figures took the country to the edge of the precipice; but finally turned back. Cyril Ramaphosa will be sworn in. The Constitution has been respected and there has been no loss of life. The people and their government can resume the difficult task of building a country which all can enjoy.