In recent months, South Africa’s President Jacob Zuma has limped from one political crisis to the next. Last December, Zuma’s decision to replace his respected finance minister with a little known backbencher met with strong opposition, and plunged the economy into a tailspin. Many feared this was a move aimed at freeing Zuma’s hand to loot public coffers and pay off his close business associates.
The President’s reputation took another hit last month when members of the Gupta family, owners of a sprawling business empire in South Africa, allegedly offered the current deputy finance minister the top post in the Treasury. Both the Guptas and Zuma denied these allegations, with Zuma affirming that he took responsibility for all government appointments.
With that scandal still smouldering, South Africa’s Constitutional Court dealt Zuma a fresh blow. The Court ruled that Zuma’s refusal to abide by the Public Protector’s binding recommendation to repay public funds used to renovate his expansive Nkandla estate went against the constitution. Zuma promptly apologized for the “frustration and confusion” that the long-running scandal caused, but this did little to calm the public outcry.
Only days later, parliament debated an impeachment motion brought by the leading opposition party, the Democratic Alliance (DA). While ANC MPs stood together, ensuring the motion failed, the debate itself—broadcast live—revisited all the corruption allegations levied against Zuma. Moreover, it was not opposition politicians alone targeting the president. Shortly after the impeachment proceedings concluded, a number of ANC veterans joined the chorus calling on Zuma to resign.
The public anger directed at Zuma has its roots in a more deep seated fear that his presidency has brought on a new era of ‘state capture.’ The influence of politically well-connected business elites appears to be growing as they become more embedded in predatory patronage networks. The Gupta’s embody this trend. In March, the current finance minister refused to appear at a meeting of business leaders to be held under the banner of the Gupta-owned New Age media group. Once the association was dropped, the meeting went ahead, whereby the minister warned, ‘There are many parts of transacting between government and business which have gone seriously wrong, and if we don’t stop it, we’re going to become a kleptocracy.’
Concern over spreading corruption is also reshaping the political map in South Africa. With local elections due in August, the ANC’s risks losing its long-standing hegemony across a number of urban strongholds where frustration with poor service delivery has grown. This may give rise to an urban-rural political divide. As the leader of the DA warned, ‘You could end up with a scenario… where the liberation movement governs in rural areas through patronage, and in urban areas people are making decisions on the basis of different choices.’
While many observers suggest a big loss for the ANC in August could spell the end for Zuma, others are more sceptical. Zuma still enjoys strong support among rural branches of the ANC, particularly in his home province of KwaZulu-Natal. This local level support reduces the likelihood that the ANC National Executive Committee, the party organ with the power to oust Zuma, will in fact force his resignation.
However, even if Zuma does survive through to the end of his term in 2018, he may struggle to anoint his preferred successor, his ex-wife Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma. This could leave the path clear for the current Deputy President, Cyril Ramaphosa, which according to some might help the ANC reset. Ramaphosa is far from Mr. Clean, though, and it is uncertain whether the challenges currently facing the ANC can be remedied through a simple change of guard.
While the political malaise deepens, the economic crisis facing South Africa—whose credit rating is teetering on the edge of junk—shows little sign of abating. Indeed, the political and economic unease go hand in hand, leaving South Africans much the worse for it.