print-edition icon Print edition | Middle East and AfricaFeb 15th 2018 | JOHANNESBURGtwitter iconfacebook iconlinkedin iconmail iconprint iconJACOB ZUMA was defiant until the end. For years he had ignored the clamour of South Africans fed up with near-constant scandals and court rulings against him. In his final days as president, Mr Zuma even scorned the…
JACOB ZUMA was defiant until the end. For years he had ignored the clamour of South Africans fed up with near-constant scandals and court rulings against him. In his final days as president, Mr Zuma even scorned the appeals of members of his party, the African National Congress (ANC), as they pleaded with him to resign. Yet even as he hardened his heart against leaving, his comrades hardened theirs against him, threatening to support an opposition-sponsored vote of no confidence on February 15th.
Faced with the prospect of humiliation, Mr Zuma announced his resignation “with immediate effect” in a live television broadcast late in the evening of February 14th. It was his second appearance on television that day.
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Upon learning that morning of his own party’s decision to support the motion of no-confidence in his government, which would also have seen the entire cabinet dissolved, Mr Zuma gave a rambling television interview. With a hint of menace from a man who had climbed the ranks of the ANC’s underground military wing to become its spymaster, he warned: “We are being plunged into a crisis that I feel some of my comrades will regret.” Wide-eyed, he also declared himself a victim. “What is it that I’ve done?” he asked.
The answer may come rather sooner than he would like. Mr Zuma faces the reinstatement of 783 counts of corruption after a court ruled that a decision to drop the charges was “irrational”. He may also be called to testify in a judicial commission of inquiry into “state capture”. This will probe allegations that the Gupta brothers, his close friends and business associates of his son, improperly influenced cabinet appointments and government tenders.
Just hours before the ANC said it would use parliament to remove Mr Zuma from office, police investigators raided a cluster of mansions belonging to the Gupta family. Five people were arrested in relation to allegations of corruption involving a government-funded dairy farm.
Mr Zuma’s ousting is a triumph for Cyril Ramaphosa, who was elected leader of the ANC at a party conference in December. But Mr Ramaphosa will have a mighty mess to clean up.
By most measures the country is worse off now than a decade ago, when Mr Zuma became leader of the ANC before being elected as president in 2009. Economic growth has slowed to a crawl, and briefly dipped into recession last year (see chart). Unemployment stands at 36% when people who have abandoned the hunt for jobs are included.
A greater portion of the country was poor in 2015 (the most recent survey) than four years earlier, and public debt has soared. Inequality is yawning and public services are dismal. A league table by the OECD, a club of mainly rich countries, ranked South Africa’s education system 75th out of 76. Its health system was recently shamed by the deaths of 143 mentally ill patients who died of thirst and hunger after they were moved out of a well-run hospital and into unregulated care homes.
Before Mr Ramaphosa can even begin to tackle many of the structural problems that hobble growth, such as a poorly educated workforce and inflexible labour markets, he will have to clean up a government that has been marred by corruption at all levels. Clearing the rot will not be as simple as removing Mr Zuma.
Mr Ramaphosa will also have to take on powerful factions at the top of the ruling party to fire incompetent cabinet ministers and battle a culture of graft that has permeated right down to local councillors. He risks splintering the party should he move too quickly.
But when Mr Ramaphosa steps into the presidency he will be able to tap a deep well of goodwill that he earned in his previous careers, as a trade unionist and then as a businessman. In less than two months since Mr Ramaphosa became head of the party, South Africa’s currency rose to its strongest level against the dollar in almost three years. The prospect of his presidency has already inspired some of the optimism that greeted that of Nelson Mandela, who was elected president in 1994 and who had wanted Mr Ramaphosa to be his successor.
After Mr Ramaphosa lost out to Thabo Mbeki, who was elected president in 1999, he told friends he would not be outfoxed again. His record as a negotiator, leading the ANC side in talks to end apartheid, had already marked him as patient and prudent, and he put both attributes to use in his long struggle to supplant Mr Zuma. Optimistic South Africans speculate that he may pick up Mandela’s mantle.
As for Mr Zuma? Few will mourn the premature end of the presidency of a man whose middle name, Gedleyihlekisa, translates from Zulu as “one who smiles while causing you harm”.