Total Recall: South Africa’s President Zuma Told to Quit. Will He?

Will he go? That’s the big question on the minds of South Africans this week as their president, Jacob Zuma, was asked to step down by the ruling African National Congress (ANC) party’s National Executive Committee (NEC).

The NEC’s decision followed a marathon thirteen-hour meeting on February 12 to decide the fate of Zuma, who has been plagued by corruption allegations.

Zuma’s successor, Cyril Ramaphosa, was elected president of the ANC in December of 2017, defeating Zuma’s former wife, Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma.

Ramaphosa faces a delicate balancing act. By forcing Zuma to heed the NEC’s call and resign, he would risk alienating large vote banks that remain loyal to the president. On the flip side, allowing Zuma to prolong this political crisis risks further tarnishing the ANC brand under Ramaphosa’s leadership.  

With the NEC’s decision, the ball is now in Zuma’s court.

J. Peter Pham, vice president for regional initiatives and director of the Atlantic Council’s Africa Center, discussed the unfolding crisis in South Africa in an interview with the New Atlanticist’s Ashish Kumar Sen. Here are excerpts from our interview.

Q: Jacob Zuma has faced corruption allegations for some time now, but he has never been charged. Why have these allegations come to a head now?

Pham: Jacob Zuma has dodged not just corruption allegations, but even a rape accusation over the years. It is not the first time that he has faced serious criminal charges. Three things have made this different.

First, the mismanagement of the economy, including the botched firing just under a year ago of a respected finance minister, Pravin Gordhan. This led to some of the worst hits to the rand in recent memory and a serious loss of investor confidence in the South African economy, which is Africa’s most developed economy and its largest in terms of per capital gross domestic product.

Second, there is a political calculation within the African National Congress (ANC)—the liberation movement that has become the dominant party in South Africa. The toll of the mismanagement and corruption allegations, and the sheer incompetence of its governance led to some of the worst poll results they have had. They were beaten in many of the largest urban centers in last year’s regional and municipal elections.

Third, there is a lifting of the veil on the full extent of the nature of the corruption such. You have official government anti-corruption agencies and courts talking openly and using the term “state capture” with regard to a family of ex-patriate Indians—the Guptas—who are close to Zuma and his family allegedly seizing command of the state and milking it for its resources. Whatever the truth of those allegations, they have certainly been played out spectacularly on the international stage, leading to the collapse of a storied British public relations firm—Bell Pottinger—and all sorts of unseemly accusations around a number of multinationals in the financial sector, including the South African units of Goldman Sachs, McKinsey, and KPMG.

The ANC actually governs as a coalition with the Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU) and the South African Communist Party, both of which have previously come out very strongly for Zuma’s removal. Within his own party, Zuma suffered a setback when his former wife, Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, lost her bid to become his successor—president of the ANC—to Cyril Ramaphosa. That defeat might have been by a slim margin, but it shifted momentum within the party itself.

Q: What kind of support does Zuma have within the ANC and in South Africa?

Pham: Jacob Zuma is, if nothing else, a survivor. Although he is known mostly for his eccentricities and the allegations of corruption that have surrounded him for a number of years, this is a man who early in his life spent ten years imprisoned under the apartheid regime with Nelson Mandela on Robben Island. After his release, he spent fifteen years in exile. He has been a minister and served as deputy president he was fired as deputy president; he was not convicted on a charge of rape; he escaped conviction on numerous counts of corruption on procedural grounds, although the courts have recently reinstated some of those charges; and he has been censured by South Africa’s highest court for using public money to upgrade his private home in Nkandla.

Besides being a political survivor, Zuma also is a popular politician, especially with rural constituencies and outside larger urban centers. Many of the blocs of key voters for the ANC are part of his core constituency. Even though he lost the bid to get his former wife elected as his successor, many of those who were elected to positions in the National Executive Committee (NEC) as well as other party organs are aligned with him.

Q: And yet the ANC decided that he should step down from the presidency?

Pham: That decision was made by the six-member NEC. What is telling is not so much the decision, but how agonizingly slow the decision-making process has been. Despite the fact that Cyril Ramaphosa was elected in December as the head of the party and that he has expressed openly since January his desire that Zuma not finish his term, it has taken up to now—only after a marathon thirteen-hour meeting—to get a consensus of the six-member NEC to ask him to step aside. We don’t even know if he will agree to do so.

Although it highlights the fact that power and momentum is shifting toward Ramaphosa, it also shows that Zuma is not entirely a spent force.

One could say that the long, drawn-out process could be a sign of weakness on the part of the new leader, but it could also be a sign of prudence. Ramaphosa has a very careful balancing act. He beat Zuma’s former wife to be president of the party, but he is going to need some of the Zuma constituency to turn out and vote for the party in the elections. That’s why the emphasis has been on allowing Zuma, insofar as possible, a dignified exit.

Balanced against that consideration is the other consideration that the longer Jacob Zuma holds out, the more damage it does to the ANC brand. It is a very tough balancing act that Ramaphosa has at the moment.

Q: What are the consequences for the ANC should Zuma decide not to heed his party’s calls to step down?

Pham: We don’t know what he is going to decide. Reportedly, he has been given a forty-eight-hour deadline to respond.

This is a party decision, it is not a constitutional provision. Similar circumstances happened in 2009. Zuma’s predecessor Thabo Mbeki had fired Zuma as deputy president of South Africa. Zuma then subsequently won the election within the ANC to become the new party president, and pulled a maneuver not unlike the one that Ramaphosa has pulled off which is to have the NEC “recall” Mbeki. That time, Mbeki listened to the ANC leadership and handed in his resignation as head of state.

Thabo Mbeki didn’t need to step down. He did so because he was a loyal soldier of the ANC and obeyed the party. There is no constitutional requirement that Jacob Zuma step down.

If he refuses to go, the party then faces a choice. It has 249 seats in the 400-member National Assembly. It only takes 201 votes to remove him from office in a no-confidence vote. South Africa is a hybrid system in which the president is selected by parliamentary majority, much like a prime minister in many countries.

However, a motion of no confidence, if it were to pass, would bring down not just the president but the entire government. The cabinet, deputy ministers, all lose their positions. Many of them are members of the National Assembly, belonging to the ANC or its allied parties. The question is: Will parliamentarians vote to bring him down with no guarantee that they will be reappointed to their posts? Plus, there is the humiliation for the party to vote for a no confidence measure that is, in formally speaking, aimed at a government it formed.

The other way is impeachment of the president, but there are only very narrow grounds for such a motion. Impeachment will require 267 members, which means that the ANC would have to rely on votes from the opposition, which would probably give the votes. While it would remove only Zuma, it would be humiliating for the ANC to go into elections with one of its own presidents formally impeached by the National Assembly.

Q: Has Zuma cost the ANC public support ahead of the elections in 2019?

Pham: The allegations of corruption around him have hurt the ANC’s brand. The ANC lost major urban centers, including Johannesburg and Pretoria, in municipal elections last year.

On the other hand, one cannot forget that Zuma still commands a lot of votes that deliver to the ANC, especially in rural constituencies. At the same time, his continuing presence makes it difficult for the ANC to rebrand itself, which is really what the party is attempting to do to get away from the corruption allegations that are personified in Zuma. To be fair to Zuma, he is not the only one facing corruption allegations. Ironically, the new secretary general of the ANC, Ace Magashule, who delivered the ANC’s demand to Zuma, had his own offices raided by an elite squad from the anti-corruption authority just last month in connection with an investigation into the siphoning of millions of rand meant to aid local dairy farmers.

Q: In a country that has been dominated by the ANC, what does a weakened ANC mean politically for South Africa?

Pham: There are a couple of trends. One is that the ANC’s proportion of the vote has fallen in every single election—national, regional, or municipal—since 1994 when the first democratic elections were held in South Africa. Nowadays, it receives now just barely above 50 percent of the votes cast.

Cynics often joke that because of increasing voter apathy the largest single vote-getter in South Africa is “none of the above!” On the other hand, the opposition has been divided between the classically liberal opposition centered around the Democratic Alliance which governs the Western Cape, Cape Town, and a number of municipalities; and on the ANC’s left groups like the Economic Freedom Fighters led by Julius Malema, a former youth leader of the ANC who was expelled from the party. The ANC still occupies something of a middle ground.

Rather tellingly, after the municipal elections, the liberal opposition and the radical left managed to form working majorities to keep the ANC from power at the local level in several areas. I think it will be very difficult for this to occur at the national level.

So, a weakened ANC is leading to a more pluralistic system, or at the least the possibility of that.

Q: What do we know of Cyril Ramaphosa?

Pham: He was a labor activist best known during the anti-apartheid struggle as the head of the United Mine Workers. Later he became very wealthy as a businessman and in fact a mine owner. His backers would say his background enables him to empathize with the struggles of ordinary South Africans, while also appreciating the concerns of the business community.

Of the two leading candidates for the presidency of the ANC he was viewed as the one who was more business friendly—or as I would rather put it, the business community was more comfortable with him rather than Zuma’s former wife, who is more outspoken.

Q: What is his biggest challenge?

Pham: His biggest challenge is going to be, first of all, uniting the ANC. Whatever one can say about Zuma, his removal, although it removes a burden on the ANC and helps with the rebranding effort, will alienate some people within the ANC.

Ramaphosa’s challenge will be how to unite the party between those who back Zuma and those who do not, while reaching out to disaffected voters to win the next election.

Externally, he has got all sorts of challenges. The ANC has delivered on some things over the years. There has been a growing black middle class since 1994, but much of this has been achieved through wealth transfers. Most people acknowledge that you have reached a limit on how much you can tax and transfer wealth. Now you have got to create wealth.

For many, the promise of liberation has not quite been delivered. If one looks over the nearly quarter of a century of ANC government, South Africa’s record on delivering services has been dismal. Everyone is focused at the moment on the fact that Cape Town is going to run out of water and is facing Day Zero sometime in the coming months, but shortages have also long plagued the power sector and been a serious obstacle to industry. The quality of education is also not up to the mark. By one educational metric, South African school leavers score at literally the bottom internationally in terms of math scores. The unemployment rate for South Africa is high even for a continent that is noted for high youth unemployment.

Ashish Kumar Sen is the deputy director of communications at the Atlantic Council. Follow him on Twitter @AshishSen.

20171207 NA BANNER

Related Experts: Ashish Kumar Sen and J. Peter Pham

Image: South Africa's ruling African National Congress party's National Executive Committee has asked President Jacob Zuma to step down over corruption allegations. (Reuters/Siphiwe Sibeko)