Zuma era lessons: how democracies can be held hostage by party machinations

Jacob Zuma announces his decision to step down. Reuters/Siphiwe Sibeko

Jacob Zuma’s late night announcement that he would step down as president of South Africa followed days of tense negotiations within the governing African National Congress (ANC). The Conversation Africa asked academics what lessons can be learnt, and how the ANC can redeem itself in the post-Zuma era.


Is this the biggest political crisis that South Africa has faced since democracy?

Vishnu Padayachee, the University of the Witwatersrand: Its equivalent to the recall of President Thabo Mbeki in 2008. For the people of South Africa to have been forced to suffer through this is hard to believe. The crises have lost the country much ground, locally and internationally.

Jannie Rossouw, the University of the Witwatersrand: This will surely go down as one of the biggest political crises faced by South Africa in the post apartheid era. The situation became highly slippery as Zuma appeared to be defying calls by his party to resign. International experiences tells us that a stand off like that could easily develop into raging conflict.

Zuma’s expressions during the interview he had with the national broadcaster hours before he finally resigned did not help the situation. In addition to claiming that he did nothing wrong, he seemed to be making veiled threats.

Mashupye Maserumule,Tshwane University of Technology: The steps to remove Zuma plunged the country into a political crisis. It exposed the dissonance between political processes of the African National Congress (ANC) as the governing party and those of the state, particularly around the party’s succession battle.

This has been a neglected lacuna, which started to show when Mbeki was recalled. At that time the big question was: what are the implications of the ANC’s concept of “recall” on South Africa’s constitutional democracy? This is because the recall wasn’t congruous with the provisions of the country’s constitution to remove a president. But it was never adequately debated and Zuma’s removal brought back these unresolved issues.

Can the ANC salvage itself?

Vishnu Padayachee, the University of the Witwatersrand: For the ANC to salvage itself, a renewal is needed. It has to develop a new culture of inclusive and democratic politics at all levels. To do this, it will have to pay more attention to political education instead of regurgitating the political education of the camps. This is totally inappropriate for the 21st Century.

It must attack corruption with greater vigour and visible energy than it has done in the past.

But it must also attend to the critical tasks of re-igniting growth, creating employment, reducing the income and wealth inequality in addition to prioritising service delivery. For this, the Cyril Ramaphosa-led ANC needs a new progressive macroeconomic policy framework. This must be state led in the first phase to “crowd in” domestic and foreign investment through the opportunities created by rising growth and effective demand.

Jannie Rossouw, the University of the Witwatersrand: To salvage itself, the ANC must eradicate corruption and replace corrupt and incompetent cabinet ministers. It must be clear after the replacement of Zuma that the ANC puts the people of South Africa first, rather than the interests of politicians.

Mashupye Maserumule, Tshwane University of Technology: Firstly, a governing party in a constitutional democracy needs to have exemplary leadership.

There are several other lessons the ANC must learn for it to emerge from this fiasco.

The first is that its internal political processes have implications on the administration of the state. These should be synchronised with those prescribed in the country’s Constitution.

Secondly, it shouldn’t compromise in its fight against corruption, and should pursue ethical leadership on all levels in the organisation from its branches to its regions, provinces and its national leaders.

Thirdly, the ANC’s integrity commission must start to bite, without fear or favour. It should be well-resourced. In addition, the ANC should invest more in the political education of its cadres.

But lastly, it should also outgrow the nostalgic streak of being a liberation movement and embrace the reality that it is a governing party in a constitutional democracy.

What does this mean for democracy in South Africa?

Vishnu Padayachee, the University of the Witwatersrand: South Africa’s hard won democracy has simply become a charade. If democracy is to be strengthened there are several things that have to change: how the President of the republic is elected; how members of parliament are elected and held accountable and how officers of parliament are elected. South Africa also has to find ways of creating new mechanisms for citizen to participate in the democracy between elections.

After 1994 South Africa simply re-positioned itself in the flawed structures of democracy that it inherited. The country should have taken time to re-think its position to ensure a more effective and functioning democracy where the people would come first.

Jannie Rossouw, the University of the Witwatersrand: Democracy in South Africa will be stronger. Zuma’s resignation shows that it is possible to remove a corrupt president through constitutional measures.

The problem was that Zuma confused support he had as a result of being in power as personal popularity. This is a mistake many powerful people in politics, government and private business make. It is therefore not surprising that his support in the ANC Parliamentary Caucus slipped quickly once it became clear that his grip on power started slipping.

But the constitutional drama raises questions about the conduct of the ruling party to have kept Zuma in power so long after his corrupt conduct. For this, the ANC owes all South Africans an apology.

Mashupye Maserumule, Tshwane University of Technology: The developments show that South Africa’s democracy is vulnerable to manipulation by party political processes. The processes of the leadership succession in the ANC ran roughshod over the supremacy of the Constitution of the country.

But in the end, Zuma was a disaster and the ANC’s decision to ask him to step down was the correct one. Even if Zuma was a good state president who had lost the presidency of his party, he would still have been coerced to resign, as it happened with Thabo Mbeki.

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