Even before he became president, Zuma with corruption charges over his head was fomenting constitutional crises in the executive, in the National Prosecuting Authority (NPA), the intelligence services and the Directorate for Priority Crime (the Hawks, then called the Scorpions). Questionable methods by his predecessor in attempts to defeat Zuma’s assent only added to the damage.
In responding to the threat of state capture under Zuma, South Africa has been a mixed bag. In his seventh year in office, scandals and spectacular revelations surrounding the wealthy Gupta family and their close proximity to the president and his kin spooked the public. After initially saying it would launch an investigation, the ANC dumped the idea in June. It also voted down a motion by the opposition in parliament for an investigation.
But the fearless Public Protector, Thuli Madonsela, obtained a special grant of R1.5 million from Minister of Finance Pravin Gordhan to forensically investigate the matter. Madonsela was to release the report on her last day in office. The ANC said it supported its release, but President Zuma sought a court order to stop the report being made public.
The new public protector, Busisiwe Mkhwebane, responded that it was under lock and key for now. Madonsela had resisted every conceivable attack against her office and her person. The jury is still out on incumbent Mkhwebane; how she proceeds with this particular matter will be the acid test.
Zuma has been like a burst appendix in the body politic, poisoning almost every organ of state, and either by direct design or through contamination, sickening the whole ecosystem, from state owned enterprises to the media and even the trade unions.
Madonsela was a good example of the body fighting back. Despite all his attempts to undermine or co-opt every institution designed by the constitution to safeguard against exactly such an attack, Zuma has often failed.
“Madonsela was a good example of the body fighting back”.
Given the headlines, the gobsmacking brazenness of his actions, the impunity with which he acts, and the ANC – like a suicide bomber apologising for the attack, it is easy to lose sight of the defence that is being mounted.
Many feared before the last election that the Independent Electoral Commission had also been infected by Zuma appointees. But the institution delivered a free and fair election with panache. The outcome was a bloody nose for the ANC and unquestionably a protest vote against Zuma’s leadership of the party. Municipalities across the country and major metros are now out of Zuma’s grasp.
Parliament may be shambolic, but it is because of vocal, vociferous opposition to Zuma personally, with a kind of outspokenness that would not be tolerated for long in less democratic states. He is openly insulted in the national assembly and even Zuma’s party-partisan Speaker Baleka Mbete is unable to protect him without acting illegally thanks to an opposition loyal to the constitution and the demands the rule of law places on her office.
In a huge public defeat, Zuma had to withdraw his appointment of his toady financial minister and the Treasury now under Gordhan is steadfastly trying to resist corruption in the executive.
Banking institutions and even the somewhat compromised Financial Services Board have acted against the Gupta companies for “suspicious and unusual” banking transactions.
Zuma’s problem is that his patronage system fatally depends upon his incumbency, which is why so many African leaders continue holding on to power for decades. But the Big Man scheme is short-lived in a democracy such as South Africa with limited presidential terms.
Many have saw how Zuma threw under the bus all those who had perjured themselves on his behalf over the Nkandla affair. That scandal was also a strike against him, upheld in the courts, and although a limited victory, in the end his accusers were vindicated and he did have to pay back some of the money.
I predict that Zuma will lose his grip on state owned enterprises such as South African Airways, Eskom and others as his Gupta appointees fall from their board positions and opposition through the courts, civil society, political parties, financial services, the unions and the Treasury consolidate.
Zuma appointee Chief Justice Mogoeng Mogoeng, to the president’s great surprise, has not pulled his punches and the Constitutional Court and the courts in general have successfully resisted extreme political pressure and persistent attempts by the ANC and the president to get a judiciary compliant to its political will.
The South African Broadcasting Corporation (SABC), which throughout its history has only ever briefly shone, is also the subject of a parliamentary probe and it looks as if it may escape Zuma’s spin doctors.
Even the factionalised NPA might just recover itself now that the courts found Zuma-compliant deputy head Nomgcobo Jiba and Lawrence Mrwebi, head of the Specialised Commercial Crimes Unit, should be struck off the advocates roll as unfit and not proper. Zuma has been forced to give notice of intent to dismiss them.
Zuma still seems to have control of the intelligence services, the Hawks and the increasingly ineffectual and laughable ANC Women’s League and ANC Youth League. But he is on the way down, like a giant deflating zeppelin.
“Zuma still seems to have control of the intelligence services, the Hawks and the increasingly ineffectual and laughable ANC Women’s League and ANC Youth League”.
ANC stalwarts continue to be vocal in speaking out against him and their number is growing. There seems little love between the president and ANC Secretary General Gwede Mantashe these days. The ANC Chief Whip, Jackson Mthembu, has boldly and sharply criticised Zuma for attacking Gordhan and accused Zuma of abusing state resources.
On 31 October, the NPA had to frantically back peddle and drop its charges against Gordhan. It spells the end of Zuma’s 2009 crony project.
Zuma’s string of legal defeats has left a trail of legal precedents and clarifications of the Constitution which has strengthened the hand of democracy. His successor will have fewer excuses and less room to undermine the country’s institutions.
We can concentrate on where Zuma’s machinations have partly succeeded and the severe damage he has done, but we should also take heart at how many have resisted and praise the people in those institutions who are trying to perform the function that their offices were designed to do.