Zuma: The cat with nine lives

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For the umpteenth time, Jacob Zuma, South Africa’s president survived another attempt to shove him out of office.  After he abruptly dismissed the respected finance minister and bulwark against excessive government spending, Pravin Gordhan and others in an apparent show of force aimed at consolidating his faction’s power before the ANC’s national conference in December, where the next party leader – and most certainly the next president – will be chosen, opponents within the ANC and opposition politicians were united in demanding Mr Zuma’s resignation. Perhaps, for the first time, he faced real and determined opposition from within party. Three of the top six big guns in the party openly criticised him. His deputy, vice president Cyril Ramaphosa said Mr Gordhan’s sacking without consultation was “unacceptable”. “I raised my concern and objection on the removal of the Minister of Finance, largely because he was being removed based on an intelligence report that I believe had unsubstantiated allegations,” Mr Ramaphosa was quoted as saying.

Also, ANC Secretary General, Gwede Mantashe, also harshly criticised the change. “We were given a list that was complete and in my own view as the Secretary-General, I felt like this list has been developed somewhere else and it’s given to us to legitimise it….I’m very uncomfortable because areas where ministers do not perform have not been touched. Ministers have been moved and the majority of them were good performing ministers. I’m very much uncomfortable with it.”

Mr Zuma’s main allies – the South African Communist Party and the Congress of South African Trade Unions (Cosatu) pointedly called on Mr Zuma to resign.

But we have been here before. Mr Zuma’s obituary has been written many times before only for him to rise from the ashes. Last year alone, he survived three no confidence votes in parliament and before then, was sacked as vice president and fought many political battles many thought would have consumed him. It is for that reason that analysts have branded him South Africa’s political survivor-in-chief.

True to that appellation, the wily Mr Zuma not only emerged victorious, but his opponent within the ANC had to eat the humble pie. Emerging from a meeting of party leaders last week Wednesday, the ANC Secretary General was forced to admit that “the public dissonance was a mistake that will not happen again.” The party particularly chastised the three leaders, who, in a break from party tradition, openly criticised the President. The ANC said it accepted Mr Zuma’s reason for firing Mr Gordhan – “the irretrievable breakdown of the relationship between the president and a member of his cabinet.” Hammering the final nail on the hopes of those who thought the ANC will force Mr Zuma to stand down, Mr Mantashe concluded: “There shouldn’t be an expectation that the ANC will be part of a campaign to unseat its own president.”

Expectedly, market reactions to the presidential overreach were swift. Ratings agency Fitch downgraded South Africa’s credit rating to sub-investment grade, saying the recent cabinet reshuffle that saw respected finance minister dismissed will likely result in a change in economic policy direction. S&P Global Ratings, on its part cut South Africa’s debt to “junk” status.

But those are not the immediate concern of Mr Zuma. Like all things African, his immediate concern is how to consolidate his hold on power and patronage opportunities in the run up to the December election of the party leader.

Mr Zuma has always been associated with corruption, cronyism and scandals. Yet, none of these was enough to stop his political ascendancy to the presidency. In 2004, Mr Zuma, as Vice President, was charged with corruption in connection with his financial advisor’s bribery case. While Shaik – his advisor – was promptly convicted and sentenced to 15 years in prison, Zuma, with the aid of his lawyers, kept putting several obstacles on the way of successful prosecution of the case and succeeded in having the cases postponed. However, before then, he had been fired as Vice President by Thabo Mbeki. Bizarrely, Zuma went ahead to defeat Mbeki in the tussle for the ANC leadership and consequently used his influence to recall Mbeki. After much legal and political wrangling, the National Prosecuting Authority (NPA) agreed to drop the case in April 2009 and a month later, Zuma ascended the presidency.

Also, in 2005, Mr Zuma was charged with the rape of a deceased friend’s daughter whom he knew to be HIV positive. During the trial, Mr Zuma admitted to having unprotected sex with his accuser and took a ‘shower’ afterwards to cut the risk of contracting HIV. Luckily for him, the courts ruled that the act was consensual.

But if anyone thought that Mr Zuma’s ascendancy to the presidency will curb his tendency to swim in scandals, that thought was extinguished following the Nkandala scandal shortly after his assumption of office in 2009 and his blunt refusal to refund part of the money – up to $16 million – spent on renovating his rural home as ruled by the country’s anti-corruption agency.

The case dragged on until March when the Constitutional Court ruled that Mr Zuma had violated the Constitution by refusing to pay back the money he used to renovate his homestead. But if anyone expected Zuma to resign, he disappointed as he merely apologised and remained firmly in his position. As if that was not enough, on April 28, 2016, Mr Justice Ledwaba ruled that the Chief Prosecutor’s decision in 2009 to drop the corruption case against Zuma was misguided and that Mr Mpshe’s had acted under pressure.

It is sad that the ANC – the party of the venerable Nelson Mandela and the foremost and longstanding political party in the entire of Africa – has allowed its moral and political authority to be so badly eroded in so short a time and is willing to continue to stand behind its vile and corrupt leader.

One could imagine the pain of anti-apartheid veterans such as Ahmed Kathrada, who watched helplessly as Mr Zuma turned their beloved party into a nest of corruption making nonsense of their sacrifices. It is to Mr Kathrada’s eternal credit that he spoke up and asked Mr Zuma to resign.

It was also fitting that his family asked President Zuma to stay away from the elder statesman’s funeral and other memorial events to be held in his honour.

It is clear that Mr Zuma’s continued stay in power is no longer tenable. But, like the classical African politician, he will never willingly resign no matter the damage his continued stay in office will do to the country and its institutions. In a way, this speaks to the nature of politics and political competition in Africa where competition for political office is seen as a war of survival and of relevance. And in such war there is no space for voluntarily handing over power once it is captured.

 

Christopher Akor

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Source: Business Day Online