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Zuma goes – then what?

Something did snap when President Jacob Zuma, in what appears to be an impulsive unilateral move, “redeployed” the minister of finance without informing his own cabinet. The immediate economic shock has been severe, and the consequences for the treasury haven’t even been felt yet



Struggle stalwarts are now openly agitating for ANC branches to request that Zuma be recalled; the ZumaMustFall hashtag is doing the social media rounds and marches across the country have been called for 16 December under its banner; ministers loyal to a fault – now seeing their own jobs on the line – are beginning to whisper their dissatisfaction. The backlash was so bad, that Zuma in shambolic fashion had to backtrack and reappoint Pravin Gordhan as minister of finance.

Ever since Nelson Mandela, the relationship between South Africans and their president is an almost personal one. The president is able to stir up feelings like no other public figure in the country: heartfelt patriotism as Mandela did; bitter anger, as Mbeki managed for all to see at his ousting at Polokwane (which has recently changed to nostalgia); enormous relief and a sense of national reprieve, as Motlanthe secured during his brief stint; and in the case of Zuma, general disbelief.

South Africans opposed to the president, stare on in bafflement as he merrily mangles the economy, our state and political institutions with impunity; those who support him, live in their own strange world of disbelief and denial, ignoring all the hard evidence that shows beyond a shadow of doubt that the country has a severely compromised man in charge who isn’t up to the job.

But the fixation on the man, the naïve belief that if Zuma goes everything will be better, is a mistake. Mandela’s departure from this world did not see the chaos some feared, no more than Mbeki’s recall saw a sudden shift in pro-poor policies and better service delivery as the “coalition of the wounded” had hoped.

Thabo Mbeki Polokwan

Thabo Mbeki’s recall did not see a sudden shift in pro-poor policies and better service delivery as the “coalition of the wounded” had hoped. Photo: Greg Marinovich

Mbeki, though far from blameless, was to a great extent a scapegoat. He became the focus of anger for the harsh economic medicine of fiscal Thatcherism, and the epicentre of rage over the HIV/AIDS epidemic. All the time, he was surrounded by people who knew better, but never spoke out, all of whom were subsequently simply let of the hook and haven’t done nearly enough penance for their lethal silence.

Removing Zuma will not solve our problems. It would however be a good start. Getting to grips with the underbelly that surrounds him will be much harder. Rooting out the corruption he has allowed to flourish together with recovering the state-owned enterprises from the patronage system will require a leader with real determination.

Undoing the damage Zuma has done to our state apparatus and chapter nine institutions – the national prosecuting authority, the intelligence services, the police commissioner (all of which were already compromised under Mbeki lest we forget), the office of the speaker of parliament, the treasury, the revenue services and the national broadcaster, will depend on a new incumbent of considerable integrity. Perhaps the National Assembly will even get back to work.

Stemming capital flight, regaining international investor confidence and improving the financial rating agencies’ outlook for South Africa will be hard indeed for whoever follows his act.

Removing Zuma will not solve our problems. It would however be a good start. Picture: Alaister Russell

Removing Zuma will not solve our problems. It would however be a good start. Picture: Alaister Russell

Electorally the ANC has suffered heavy blows and the coming local elections may see it suffer unprecedented defeats. Anyone who thinks this was inevitable is wrong. The tripartite alliance is dead, just as Motlanthe said. The ANC is now on its way to becoming a rural party like the IFP. Whether the ANC Youth League and ANC Women’ League can ever recover their dignity (never mind their relevance) remains to be seen.

But Zuma still has over three years to wreck the treasury, commit economic suicide through loans, sign into law the protection of state information act, hoc the country to China for short-term gains, and allow what money is left to be squandered or plundered.

Through his personal machinations for political expediency, Zuma has been sabotaging what was a very good constitutional state model. His actions are not the behaviour of someone responsible to a collective. He has imperilled the system. Whoever takes over will have to address this directly. What South Africa needs is not simply a competent man in the presidency, but someone who believes in the values of a democratic state, doesn’t stack the cards in their personal favour, builds strong independent institutions and abides by their rulings even when they don’t like it. In short, someone who puts the country first, before the party, and the party before themselves.


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