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Jacob Zuma’s brazen venality may be exhausting even his ANC allies

After months of trying, South Africa’s President Zuma finally fired his finance minister, Pravin Gordhan. The move was met with huge disquiet within the ANC, and a predictably sharp drop in the value of the Rand. Gordhan and his deputy were replaced by two Zuma loyalists, both from the president’s home province of KwaZulu Natal, and both without any deep financial experience. Other ministers were also replaced, none by people of exceptional merit.

All were sacked and replaced without consultation of either Zuma’s deputy, Cyril Ramaphosa, or the ANC secretary-general, Gwede Mantashe. Ramaphosa, along with many other senior figures, decried this bloodbath reshuffle as “totally unacceptable”. Opposition figures such as Julius Malema also warned against the firing of Gordhan, saying that it would be the end of Zuma.

They may yet be proven right – and the incident might also spell disaster for the country. While Zuma moves the deckchairs, the good ship South Africa is sinking. There is no strategy for its rescue, or even salvage.

Gordhan was at least trying to make sure it sank as slowly as possible. Zuma, conversely, was determined to fire Gordhan without taking cabinet advice or ANC senior party advice. He made no effort to dispel the odour of self-interest, or to rework his image as a venal ruler who doesn’t really care for his country, but only for himself and his cronies.

That image was reinforced yet again after the recent death of veteran freedom fighter Ahmed Kathadra, incarcerated for 25 years on Robben Island alongside Nelson Mandela. Kathadra had himself publicly implored Zuma to resign, and his family made it clear it did not want Zuma at his funeral.

The president duly stayed away – but then Kathadra’s state memorial ceremony was postponed without explanation, and with no alternative date forthcoming. Despite the efforts of Zuma’s spokespeople, petty, disrespectful pique was directed at a towering figure who had deigned to speak out against Zuma’s rule.

Learning nothing

When he joined the fight against apartheid, Zuma was a shepherd boy without much in the way of education. Arrested before he achieved much by way of rebellion, his education was largely at the hands of his prison colleagues. On his release, Zuma was smuggled by the underground ANC to Swaziland, where Thabo Mbeki – the future president he later betrayed – taught him how to use a machine gun.

But nothing prepared him for high office, and his political roles were the first salaried positions he ever held. His main role in exile was as commandante of the ANC prison camps for dissidents in Angola; tales of torture in the camps were rife, and were a stain on the ANC’s reputation.

Waiting in the wings? Cyril Ramaphosa with Jacob Zuma. EPA/Mike Hutchings

Zuma never learned what was rightfully his and what was the state’s, and has duly been dogged by scandal after scandal. He owes his Teflon-like endurance entirely to the protection of his ANC allies; if powerful figures like Ramaphosa and former ANC treasurer, Mathews Phosa, make serious moves against him, his time may soon be up.

As has become the way in the ANC, the knives will be out behind closed doors, and whether Zuma stays or goes, there will be nothing transparent about what happens. He may be counting on staying until the next scheduled election in 2019, betting that the party will not dare remove him. Ramaphosa, meanwhile, might simply be waiting until the ANC conference later this year, where he stands a chance of being elected president of the party. Should he take the helm, it would be much easier for him to force Zuma to a recall vote, just as Zuma did to Mbeki in 2008.

But also vying for the ANC presidency is Zuma’s ally and former wife, Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, latterly head of the African Union. If her ex-husband is ousted or steps down, she might well be his best hope for impunity in retirement. Her performance in her continental role was lacklustre; like Zuma, she has little to promise South Africa in the way of stability or prosperity.

Earlier this year, former treasurer Phosa penned an op-ed for the Daily Maverick website in which he lamented the ANC’s moral decline under Zuma:

I have come to a point where I refuse to be part of the intellectual funeral of the ANC, that I refuse to be associated with so-called leaders who trample on the people who voted them into office, who disrespect the constitution, whose only predictable response to all challenges is “racism” and who are willing to sacrifice the future of our children before the throne of a man who knows no shame and shows no character.

Zuma’s latest moves fit Phosa’s diagnosis perfectly. And if his ex-wife is elevated to power and lets him off the hook for a disastrous and haphazard presidency, the ANC will have only itself to blame.

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