South Africa's crisis could become a monster if Zuma is left unchecked

BY MZUKISI QOBO - NOVEMBER 14, 2016

The events of the past few weeks in South Africa, including the release of the Public Protector’s state capture report, are signs of how the country’s condition has been corroded under President Jacob Zuma’s leadership.

Given that a formidable faction still reinforces Zuma both within and outside of the African National Congress (ANC), he is unlikely to vacate power willingly. The stakes are high, particularly given that corruption charges still await him following the North Gauteng High Court’s ruling that fraud and corruption charges against him should be reinstated.

The state capture report is emphatic in its claim that there appears to be a conflict of interest between Zuma’s official duties and private interests. It states that Zuma has used his official position to

extend preferential treatment to Gupta-linked businesses in the form of state contracts, business financing and trading licenses.

It seems a shade of malfeasance follows Zuma.

Madonsela’s report is essentially about how the country’s institutional framework has been undermined. It details serious breaches of a number of laws including the Members Executive Ethics Code, the Public Finance Management Act, Prevention and Combating of Corrupt Activities Act and Income Tax Act.

At its core, the report is also about governance. After all, it was sparked by claims that Zuma’s cronies are the ones who make – or promise – cabinet appointments, suggesting the president is a proxy of influential business elite.

It also pieces together a web of relationships that binds together some of the key actors in businesses associated with the Gupta family, executives and board members of state-owned enterprises and the president through members of his family.

There is a governance and institutional crisis that, if allowed to continue, could become an insurmountable monster.

Defects in political governance, especially Zuma’s failure to provide leadership, have induced a crisis of confidence in South Africa’s economy.

In addition institutions of state such as the National Directorate of Public Prosecution (colloquially called the Hawks), the intelligence community, and the South African Revenue Services have become weaker. Individuals who occupy these institutions are suspected of being close to Zuma, and are deployed in the ANC’s factional battles.

There’s no better example of this than the Hawks’ on and off cases against Finance Minister Pravin Gordhan. The integrity of an important institution has been diminished. And tensions within the ANC have been deepened.

Zuma is the common denominator in all of this.

How did he rise to such an influential position that his own party struggles to rein him in?

Shifting alliances within the ANC

The marks of venality witnessed today are nothing new. Zuma already had a chequered history when he came to power in 2009. Before he ascended to the highest office he had an unresolved bribery case resulting from the arms procurement package, and for which his benefactor Schabir Shaik was convicted in 2005. Citing a complaint by Standard Bank, Judge Hilary Squires noted at the trial that:

He [Zuma] was not only over his head in personal debt … but also concerned about the future education of his children.

His moral underbelly was evident early on. He was never fit to be president.

Some of the facts that became clear in the Squires case included Zuma’s heavy dependence on others to pay his debts; his preoccupation with extending the Nkandla homestead through donations back in 2000; his penchant for living beyond his means; and his desire to enjoy a comfortable existence funded by others.

Political scientist Goran Hyden refers to this phenomenon as the economy of affection. It is characterised by personal investment in reciprocal, informal relations with other individuals as a means of maximising self-interest by circumventing formalised processes. Such practices, as Hyden suggests, could undermine governance, notably accountability and transparency.

Indeed, Zuma’s rule has been synonymous with the perversion of governance and weakening of independent institutions.

Yet still, with all his vulnerabilities and ethical lapses, the ANC chose Zuma as its best candidate to lead the party both in 2007 and 2012. And then, despite his troubled first term as president of the country between 2009 and 2014, the ANC handed him a second term after the national elections in 2014.

Initially the ANC and its alliance partners, the Congress of South African Trade Unions and the South African Communist Party, believed that Zuma bore hope for the poor. His rise had an ideological pretense: to facilitate a shift away from neo-liberal policies towards serving the interests of the poor.

Zuma’s second phase as leader of the party was cemented at the ANC’s Mangaung elective conference in December 2012. It was here that he became unstoppable. He stared down his political opponents. The thorn in his flesh, Julius Malema, was expelled along with various other errant ANC Youth League leaders.

At this point, Zuma’s political life was defined by a singular motive: to sustain his political survival until the 2019 national elections while using cronies as front men to accumulate wealth. As the Guptas tightened their grip on Zuma, the initial consensus that had the façade of a political project built around the ANC secretary general Gwede Mantashe, Zwelinzima Vavi, and South African Communist Party general secretary Blade Nzimande, began to crumble.

There are grave implications for this kind of leadership. Policy uncertainty has multiplied. This is particularly true of economic policy. Public trust in institutions is generally low. This was particularly evident in the protestations against National Director of Public Prosecutions Shaun Abraham’s threat to charge Gordhan.

The foundations of democratic governance have become weaker in the seven years that Zuma has presided over the state. He also cost the ANC electoral support in 2016 local government elections and a great deal of embarrassment over the Nkandla matter. The ANC’s political capital will continue to evaporate while it remains wedded to him. Zuma may become the party’s grave digger in 2019.

What next?

If South Africa is to restore hope in governance and rebuild its institutions, the ANC would need to get rid of Zuma soon. If they choose to remain with him until the party’s elective conference in 2017, much damage would have been done in the country’s institutions by the 2019 elections. For that, the ANC would deserve to be punished at the polls.

The Conversation

Mzukisi Qobo, Associate Professor at the Institute for Pan African Thought and Conversation, University of Johannesburg. This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article. Image: President Jacob Zuma is the common denominator in South Africa’s governance problems. Nic Bothma/EPA