A politician resigning, even a president or prime minister, does not typically generate the sense that their departure is decisive for the future well being or survival of their country and its citizens. That was not so when South Africa’s Jacob Zuma resigned this week after nine disastrous years as president. His remaining in office, or securing it for a chosen successor, would have kept South Africa on the destructive path that defined his presidency.
The daily narrative of South Africa in recent years has been corruption and economic mismanagement of a Titanic scale, together with confrontational politics and racial antagonism abetted by the ruling party under Zuma’s direction. The economy has been stagnant for years and investors have fled—people are now poorer on average as a result.
His resignation, after an epic struggle in which he refused demands even from his own party for him to go, has suddenly opened a new era, almost a rebirth of the type last seen in this country at the democratic transition in 1994. All the same problems remain, including the epic mess left behind by the Zuma years, but it is at least possible to feel there is some hope for the future.
Zuma’s tenure as president from start to finish was a story of corrupting institutions to evade justice for his own crimes. A crafty manipulator with undeniable political charm, the party was slowly brought under his control and came to reflect his own malign influence; figures elevated in government and state appointments were the corrupt and incompetent, but loyal to him.
The running of state corporations and government purchasing became one massive fraud engineered to enrich insiders: corrupt tenders, kickbacks and crooked dealings. Control of the national airline was given to his ex-mistress, a former rural primary school teacher, who drove out qualified staff and had ministers fired who tried to hold her to account.
The African National Congress, the party of Nelson Mandela, changed: arrogant, venal, divisive and unaccountable. In the final years the party’s luminaries, including the colleagues of Mandela, openly called for Zuma to go. Public support for him all but disappeared and tainted the party as well. He survived all this, laughing off public outrage as one scandal after another came out. He had control of the party’s senior structures, which he understood was all that mattered.
He evaded jail by the same method. The police, criminal prosecution, the tax services and the intelligence agencies came under his control. Honest people were hounded out of these institutions, and replaced with lackeys dedicated to protecting Zuma.
In the final years the modus operandi was obvious to anyone watching. Competent civil servants acting independently suddenly faced disciplinary inquiries for spurious reasons and were forced to resign. The intelligence services who had become Zuma’s private security force, spread reports to side-line those who stood in the way. Opponents in the party and even honest cabinet ministers were targeted the same way.
Corruption and illegality was unearthed by independent media and civil society but almost no one was ever charged. His party was forced to defend him publicly, falling back on old habits of solidarity suitable to a liberation movement rather than a modern democratic party in government.
Constitutionally unable to stand again for president all that remained was to secure a successor, his ex-wife, who would keep him out of jail and maintain the vast corrupt networks that had developed around him and had taken over the state. It nearly worked. By the skin of its teeth the party instead chose the reform candidate, Cyril Ramaphosa, in a dirty leadership campaign in December that should never have been close.
Zuma was still president until 2019 and intended to hang on, pushing through more corrupt deals and entrenching a radical political and economic narrative that blamed whites and big business for the country’s problems: the perfect smoke screen to create chaos and divert attention from the looting project that was creating a whole new class of corrupt, wealthy business people aligned to the ruling party and with their own newspapers and television stations to spread the word.
Last week something finally changed. Ramaphosa’s people narrowly got the upper hand in the party committees—Zuma would have to go.
He refused. Even after being recalled (fired) by the party he fought to the end, making a rambling national address on SABC, the state broadcaster that he had made a mouthpiece for his own interests. It was classic Zuma: contradictory, self-pitying, telling out right lies and making veiled threats that the army or party militias in his home province of KwaZulu-Natal might still come to his aid.
And then late the same night, facing a parliamentary vote of no-confidence the next morning he was set to lose, he resigned.
The new man, Ramaphosa, is a vast change in style and substance. He is seen jogging in the early morning on the Cape Town seafront, interacting with the public in a low key gentlemanly way. His first speech to parliament, the state of the nation address that Zuma was supposed to give, was a checklist of generally wise or obvious actions for the problems the country faces, including judicial independence and prosecution of the corrupt.
Most notable was the change in tone: dignified and presidential, gone the arrogance and divisiveness in place of a more unifying approach. He even paused to say a few words in Afrikaans, generally the language of conservative whites, asking: “Please, give us a chance”. It seemed an implicit admission of shame for the Zuma years.
The problems of South Africa are all still there, the inherited ones of massive inequality and all the self-made ones of the Zuma era. Ramaphosa has narrow support in the party. Some of the people backing him are hoodlums. But suddenly, for the first time in years, it seems possible these problems will be tackled responsibly.
This country which can be on a destructive path and feel as though it is 5 minutes to midnight for a lengthy time, can also surprise and bounce back through inspiring events.