CONTEMPORARY South African politics has all the makings of a theatre production, with a plentiful supply of drama, tragedy, skulduggery and characters that would seem unbelievable in a work of fiction.
Since my arrival here, President Jacob Zuma has faced overwhelming (although not for him) public criticism and unprecedented dissension from within his own party, the African National Congress, over his running of the country.
This weekend, enormous crowds protested against the President all across South Africa, infuriated with a series of blunderous and seemingly corrupt actions, the most recent of which saw him fire his third finance minister in a little over a year. It was part of a broader cabinet reshuffle that’s widely been perceived as a power consolidation tactic on the part of Zuma. As occurred with the previous sackings, the Rand took a dive in value as a result of the uncertainty caused by the decision to stand down the widely respected Finance Minister Pravin Gordhan.
Animosity had developed between Gordhan and Zuma in recent months as the former went to court seeking a declaratory order that he, as Finance Minister, could not intervene in the decision of several South African banks to close accounts belonging to business giants and close associates of the President, the Gupta family.
Zuma has been accused by many of having inappropriately close ties to the Guptas. One of his wives (Zuma is a polygamist) has worked for one of the Gupta companies in the past and two of his children currently work for other businesses belonging to the family. It has been said in the media several times that the Guptas have the power to call government ministers to their home to dispense instruction. One Member of Parliament claimed last year that he was offered the role of Finance Minister by two of the brothers.
In recent months, the South African Office of the Public Protector released a report, titled ‘State of Capture’. It detailed “alleged improper and unethical conduct by the President and other state functionaries relating to improper relationships and involvement of the Gupta family in the removal and appointment of Ministers and Directors of State-Owned Enterprises, resulting in improper and possibly corrupt awarding of state contracts and benefits to the Gupta family’s businesses.”
The decision, taken by several South African banks, to shut the Gupta accounts had been taken as a result of a series of suspicious transactions and questions of financial impropriety on the part of the family, who moved here from India at the end of Apartheid and established several highly profitable companies in the country.
The Guptas asked the then Finance Minister for assistance in keeping the bank accounts open but were refused by Gordhan, who said that he was powerless to intervene. Last month, Zuma tried to have his influence felt in the matter by applying to be considered an ‘interested party’ in the proceedings but the court denied his application.
Gordhan’s application asked that the declaratory order from the court also deny any other members of the executive, including the President, from being able to interfere in banking affairs, further removing any possibility that another member of the cabinet, or indeed their friend in the top position, could fight the Guptas’ cause with the banks. These events, combined with other supposed tensions between Zuma and Gordhan over the latter’s unwillingness to renege on his responsibilities at the President’s request, appeared to be the final straw.
Two weeks ago, while Gordhan was at an international investors’ conference in London, he was recalled by the President and instructed to come straight to Pretoria before he had concluded his meetings. The entire country presumed Zuma was ordering Gordhan to Pretoria so he could fire him but before he could do so, one of South Africa’s last remaining Struggle stalwarts passed away and the sacking was put on ice for a few days.
Ahmed Kathrada spent over 18 years in prison, much of it on Robben Island with his close friend Nelson Mandela, for his activities in the ANC. When Apartheid ended, he served as a member of parliament and an advisor to Mandela in government. Lovingly referred to as ‘Kathy’ by many here, he enjoyed almost universal admiration among South Africans, something no ANC politician today can realistically expect.
Almost a year to the day before he died, Kathrada had written an open letter to Jacob Zuma, calling upon him to retire, a completely unprecedented break in ranks from such a high ranking and well respected ANC member.
“I am not a political analyst, but I am now driven to ask: ‘Dear Comrade President, don’t you think your continued stay as President will only serve to deepen the crisis of confidence in the government of the country?’ Kathrada wrote.
“And bluntly, if not arrogantly; in the face of such persistently widespread criticism, condemnation and demand, is it asking too much to express the hope that you will choose the correct way that is gaining momentum, to consider stepping down?”
At Ahmed Kathrada’s funeral, which took place the day after he died, the letter was read out at the graveside by Kgalema Motlanthe to a huge round of applause from those in attendance. Motlanthe served briefly as President in between the resignation of Thabo Mbeki, prompted by a Zuma-instigated recall by the ANC, and the election of the current President.
Zuma himself was spared the indignity of sitting through the letter-reading and subsequent applause, as he had been requested not to attend the funeral by the Kathrada family. Pravin Gordhan, recalled from London two days beforehand and widely presumed to be attending his last official event as Finance Minister, was called upon from the pulpit to stand up during the funeral and he received a standing ovation from those in attendance.
A few days later, people’s presumptions were proven correct, as Jacob Zuma initiated a late at night cabinet reshuffle that was unprecedented because of the unilateral way in which it was carried out. It has been standard practice, since democratic rule was introduced in South Africa, for the president to consult with the ANC’s National Executive Committee regarding such major decisions. Zuma, however, presented the details of his reshuffle to the NEC as a fait accompli.
The move prompted three of the ANC’s top six officials, including Zuma’s Vice-President Cyril Ramaphosa, to heavily criticise the President, although stopping short of calling for his retirement. The working relationship between the Vice-President and President has soured to the point where the two have been said to rarely speak with one another in recent months.
It was Ramaphosa who disclosed to the press that, when justifying firing his Finance Minister to the NEC, Zuma referred to an intelligence report, which claimed Gordhan and his also-fired Deputy Finance Minister had gone to London to mobilise financial markets against South African interests. Ramaphosa said the alleged report was preposterous, contained spurious allegations and that he was opposed to the removal of Pravin Gordhan.
In the reshuffle, the President replaced his Finance Minister and Deputy Finance Minister with individuals that are perceived to be Zuma loyalists, Malusi Gigaba and Sfiso Buthelezi, the latter of whom was first elected to parliament in March 2016.
Zuma’s sacking of a popular and respected Finance Minister as part of a wider unilateral cabinet reshuffle, combined with his inappropriately close relationship with the Gupta family and his other scandals, may prove to be the tipping point with the electorate, many of whom protested in cities across the country on Friday. Up to 80,000 marched in Cape Town alone.
I was in Pretoria on Friday for the marches and unlike the tense environment that had been predicted by the media (due to thinly-veiled threats of violence from the ANC Youth League) the protest had a party atmosphere. There was a wide diversity of backgrounds represented, with many people dancing and singing. Many came with South African flags draped over their shoulders, clothed in t-shirts baring slogans and holding signs with messages such as ‘Zupta must fall’ and ‘Deliver us from evil’.
My favourite sign bore the message ‘Mandela built a nation, Mbeki built a country, Zuma built a house’.
Thabo Mbeki was Mandela’s successor, whose downfall was in part seen as a result of what many felt was his aloofness and lack of a common touch, accusations which those close to him say are off the mark. In light of the behaviour of the current President, many have come to long for the more statesmanlike Mbeki, who oversaw 36 consecutive quarters of positive economic growth and an average GDP growth rate of 3.25%. Under Zuma, that figure is barely 1% and, in the days after he fired Pravin Gordhan as Finance Minister, South Africa had its credit rating downgraded to junk status. The downgrading was largely seen as a response to the removal of what had been perceived as a steady hand on the state coffers.
‘Zuma built a house’ is a reference to the President’s use of state funds to carry out renovations on his private home. He spent the equivalent of $23m of public money on upgrades of his rural house, which included the installation of a swimming pool and amphitheatre. He was instructed by the public protector in 2014 to pay back some of the misused funds and initially refused. However, South Africa’s Constitutional Court ruled a little over a week ago that he had violated the constitution and Zuma has since said he accepts this ruling and will now pay back the money.
Being able to slip through so many scandals, including being charged with rape in 2006, without paying a major political price has earned Zuma the reputation of being an escape artist. Although found not guilty of the rape charges, he did disclose during the trial that he had unprotected sex with his accuser, whom he knew to be HIV positive. In order to cut the risk of contracting HIV, he said during the trial that he had a shower straight away afterwards.
While such charges and disclosures would be enough to finish the careers of most politicians, Zuma rolls with the punches like no other. Amazingly, in 2009 the National Prosecuting Authority dropped 783 corruption charges against Zuma, months before he became President. The charges were dropped for a number of purported reasons that varied from technical failures in how they were pursued to insinuations that some of the accusations were politically motivated.
The High Court in Pretoria ruled last year that the decision to drop the charges was irrational and the possibility remains that the charges may still be reinstated and pursued at some point in the future. This may provide some context for why many perceive Zuma’s cabinet reshuffle as a circling of the wagons to ensure his supporters remain in positions of power and influence.
The fact that several senior ANC members have broken with the convention of keeping criticism behind the doors of party meetings, however, suggests that Zuma’s imperviousness might finally be coming undone. The sight of hundreds of thousands coming out to protest across the country this weekend would also support that possibility.
That said, no one you speak to here is claiming with certainty that Zuma’s political demise is imminent. Having seen him beat circumstances that would obliterate most political careers on so many occasions in the past means few are willing to bet heavily against the President.