It has been a difficult year for President Jacob Zuma. The death of Nelson Mandela on 5 December 2013 led international journalists and ordinary South Africans to draw parallels between the country’s first black president and his successors. Living up to Mandela’s image is hard enough for the most popular of leaders, but it was particularly challenging for Zuma, who has been the subject of a series of corruption accusations since taking office on 9 May 2009.
The trouble began shortly after Mandela’s death. On 10 December, at a ceremony to celebrate Madiba’s life, a succession of world leaders received loud cheers from enthusiastic spectators, only for the South African presiden’s speech to be drowned out by boos. It took a characteristically lively intervention from Archbishop Desmond Tutu – who took to the microphone to tell the crowd “you must show the world that we are disciplined. I want to hear a pin drop” – to quieten the audience.
Some ANC leaders, overly confident following two decades of dominant-party rule, argued that the party should not panic. But the party’s excuses for the booing – which included the accusation that booers were satanists – soon inspired ridicule among online commentators. Worse still, it was not a one off. The President was booed again on 5 March, when he walked onto the pitch at the FNB Stadium for the post-match ceremony after the international friendly between South Africa and Brazil. It did not help that Brazil had won 5-0.
The headline story behind much of the criticism is the controversial upgrade of President Zuma’s home in Nklandla, Kwa-Zulu Natal. Improvements to his property were justified on the basis of the need for increased security following his rise to the presidency. But the $23 million of taxpayers money spent on the project paid for much more than higher fences and security cameras: President Zuma now has a swimming pool and cattle ranch. Since the revelations about Nklandla broke, the process through which the expenditure was ordered has come under intense scrutiny. Unfortunately for President Zuma, he does not compare well to his predecessors: Nelson Mandela spent $2.9 million on two residences, while Thabo Mbeki spent just $1.1 million on one.
Despite the best efforts of the ANC to make the issue go away, and a government probe in December 2013 that cleared Zuma of any wrongdoing, the controversy keeps returning to the front pages. Most recently, the president was forced to defend his actions after an investigation by South Africa’s Public Protector, Thuli Madonsela, found that he had “benefitted unduly” from the upgrade and accused him of unethical conduct. She also recommended that he should pay back some of the costs which were associated with unnecessary renovations. Zuma’s response was that he did not ask for the upgrade, arguing that they “did this without telling me”. But the idea that someone in the government ordered radical changes to the president’s residence without asking him contradicts both some of his former statements to parliament (which implied that he had paid for some of the improvements himself) and defies common sense.
When she released her report, Madonsela gave President Zuma 14 days to respond before parliament. But she was also careful to give him a “get out of jail free card” by concluding that while it could be “legitimately construed” that the president had misled parliament, in her opinion it was a “bona fide mistake.” Commentators in South Africa have suggested that in the context of a dominant-party state, and a ruling party known to be averse to criticism, this was a compromise she needed to take. By focussing the debate away from personality politics and onto key political institutions, she has created a situation in which the president can rehabilitate his reputation by enforcing some of the reforms that she suggests.
Although the Democratic Alliance opposition moved to lay criminal charges against Zuma in the wake of Madonsela’s report, it nevertheless seems highly likely that the president will survive this latest blow to his reputation – at least in the short term. The roots of public unease with President Zuma, however, go far deeper than the Nklandla controversy. Over the past two years commentators have identified the increase of neo-patrimonial practices within the ANC and the bureaucracy. Anecdotal evidence about contracts being awarded to incompetent companies because of their links to senior ANC officials chimes with scholarly accounts of the rise of corrupt activities within the ruling party now that the struggle has been won and the bonds of solidarity that it generated have started to loosen.
As a result, an increasing number of ANC leaders are concerned that the party could get a bloody nose in general elections scheduled for 7 May. No one is predicting that the ANC will lose its majority, but the size of the party’s legislative majority may shrink, and a large fall in turnout is a real possibility. Fortunately for President Zuma, South Africa does not employ direct presidential elections. Rather, the president is selected by parliament, in a similar way to the Prime Minister of the UK. This means that there is no opportunity for ANC voters to embarrass the president by voting ANC in legislative elections and refusing to vote in the presidential poll. There is also no danger of Zuma losing office, because the ANC is all but assured a legislative majority.
However, a poor showing for the ANC would lead to renewed pressure from within the party for Zuma to make way for one of his less unpopular colleagues, such as the Deputy President of the ANC, Cyril Ramaphosa. As with Thabo Mbeki before him, President Zuma may struggle to control the pressure for change as it gains momentum. Indeed, some South Africans have already celebrated Zuma’s resignation, after the Sowetan newspaper reported that it had received the following letter from the presidency:
“Dear citizens of South Africa and comrades in Parliament, I hereby announce my resignation to you. Due to the recent Nkandla report, and various attacks towards me, I simply cannot defend myself any longer.
I sincerely hope that your future will be in good hands.
It was, of course, an April Fool’s spoof. But it was evidence that the President’s resignation is becoming increasingly discussed, anticipated, and hoped for by his critics.