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Zuma’s time is up – but what does it mean for South Africa?

Zuma’s time is up – but what does it mean for South Africa?

South Africa’s African National Congress (ANC) is mired in a serious leadership crisis, and President Jacob Zuma faces an ignominious end to his political career. The 74-year-old has refused to take responsibility amid corruption and conspiracy charges. Having been replaced as party president by Cyril Ramaphosa in December 2017, he faced the choice between resigning or taking his chances with a no-confidence vote in parliament. After days of mouting pressure, he finally walked.

The whole episode carries more than an echo of recent events in neighbouring Zimbabwe, where a bloodless military coup removed President Robert Mugabe but left his ruling ZANU-PF party in power, while the coup’s leaders were rewarded with cabinet posts.

The global public seems glued to every move in South Africa’s political drama. But is the attention actually warranted? Is the country really at one of its most momentous crossroads yet? That will only be clear with hindsight.

Perhaps Zuma’s removal will help transform South Africa’s political culture and regenerate the ANC, which is still stuck in its old anti-apartheid/Mandela mode. If it revives the ruling party and ends the era of old men clinging to power and acting with impunity, Zuma’s departure will be one of the great Rubicons in South Africa’s post-apartheid history.

Falling short

Just before the 1994 elections, ANC activist Albie Sachs declared that the ANC had at best two terms in power to bring electricity and running water to the majority of South Africans and to address the inequality in educational, health and infrastructural services. Any longer, he said, and young South Africans would start to challenge its authority.

To give the party its due, what has been achieved is remarkable. It is easy to forget just how momentous the country’s problems were when the ANC took power in 1994. Given it started with one of the world’s largest gaps between the wealthy (at that time almost exclusively “white”) and the poor (almost exclusively of colour), post-apartheid South Africa has been tremendously successful in creating a stable and solid black middle class.

Happier times for the ANC, 2008. EPA/Kim Ludbrook

The party had to try and refashion the country on all levels – political, economic, social, cultural – and in some ways, it has made great strides. While it has its many critics, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of the late 1990s helped the nation start to move on from one of the most intense protracted experiences of racial discrimination in recent history.

But some of the deep problems apartheid wrought are anything but solved: millions still live in poverty, and levels of violent crime (notably sexual violence) are strikingly high. All the while, many among the ANC’s elite (not least Zuma himself) have conspicuously accrued tremendous wealth, and their extravagance has become a significant problem for the party’s legitimacy. But instead of cleaning house or changing its ways, the ANC has over and over again chosen to fall back on its victory against apartheid and the memory of its most famous member, Nelson Mandela.

Behind the figleaf

In 2013, a month before Mandela passed away, the South African High Commission in London hosted the exhibition “We Love Mandela”, which included a painting by South African artist Simon Dean entitled “The Last Supper”. It portrays Mandela as Jesus, surrounded by an astonishing cadre of “disciples” – from Desmond Tutu, Mohandas Gandhi, Martin Luther King, and the Ethiopian Emperor Haile Selassie.

This sort of Mandela-worship has been the party’s figleaf, and a useful device for silencing opposition, criticism, and calls for change. For far too long, it kept the party safe enough from electoral humiliation that Zuma remained secure in his office. But underneath it all, the political crisis that now confronts both the ANC and South Africa writ large has been brewing for years, and Zuma’s demise is long overdue.

To judge by the coverage outside South Africa, with the global public glued to every turn in this political drama, one might think Zuma’s demise had come from nowhere, and that it is guaranteed to change the country for good. But in reality, nothing new has come to light in some time. The latest investigation into his connections with corrupt interests began with exposés by the South African Mail & Guardian newspaper in 2013. Most of the assorted corruption charges against Zuma predate his presidency, as does the controversial rape case against him in 2005-6.

Zuma’s presumptive successor, Cyril Ramaphosa, is not exactly the embodiment of radical change. But Ramaphosa will have the chance to finally seize the impetus for a true political transformation – to find a way of tackling poverty, violence and discrimination while reforming the ANC from top to bottom.

Only if that happens will the end of Zuma really turn out to be the moment of transformation much of the world thinks it is guaranteed to be.