Jacob Zuma, South Africa’s unpopular president, has finally been removed. Yet the terms of his departure were deeply problematic. In what was a painfully tortuous process, the ANC could not even agree on a timeframe for his departure.
Although Zuma was embroiled in many scandals – acquitted of rape after being accused by the daughter of a friend; refusing to pay for a massive building project at his palatial home; a questionable friendship with a family alleged to have benefited from corrupt state tenders – the ANC failed to act against him for years.
When asked “Why now?”, party leaders seemed dumbstruck – exemplified by the stumbling response of Ace Magashule, the new ANC secretary general, after he was pressed to explain what exactly Zuma had done to provoke the recall procedure.
The truth was difficult to admit but it was obvious to most South Africans. With next year’s elections looming and Zuma’s disapproval ratings skyrocketing, the ANC needed to address its Zuma problem. For ordinary South Africans watching the process unfold, the message was clear: the internal machinations of the party were far more important than the wellbeing of the country. Even in his final hours as head of state, Zuma was being protected.
For the party that once led on the basis of principle, protecting Zuma was paramount for two reasons. First, a number of party officials worried about offending him. Fearful of his wrath, they spoke of the need for a dignified exit for a man who had served his movement well. Underlying this talk of loyalty was the concern that Zuma, if he felt disrespected, might call on supporters to inflict further damage on the party.
Second, many in the senior ANC leadership quietly worried about how turning against Zuma too stridently would look, when so many of them had vocally supported him up until the end. Worse, many have played active roles in enabling the wholesale looting of state coffers that has resulted in South Africa’s recent credit-rating downgrades
A recent leak of files linked to the Gupta family, close associates of Zuma and his family, showed the depth of the patronage network. Many members of his cabinet and those responsible for state-owned enterprises and ancillary services had been sponsored by the Guptas for holidays to Dubai.
It was evident that the hypocrisy would rankle the public. Even Malusi Gigaba, the minister of finance appointed by Zuma and a man closely associated with both the president and the Guptas, appeared on TV to issue Zuma an ultimatum. Many political observers noted the irony.
None of this bodes well for the fortunes of the party. The disastrous Zuma years are over, but the ANC’s renewal is far from certain. In addition to purging the party of corrupt individuals – many in the ranks of the senior leadership – Cyril Ramaphosa, the new president of the party, will have to address the corruption of the party’s internal processes.
Since Zuma’s ascent, charges of vote rigging and the manipulation of the electoral system at all levels – from branches to the national executive – have been rife. Re-energising the party’s base will be an uphill battle, and some voters may choose to punish the once mighty ANC at the polls.
Still, politics in South Africa continues to be defined by history. The Democratic Alliance, the largest opposition party, continues to be seen as a party that serves the interests of the minority white population despite the fact that it is led by a young black man and has increased its black membership significantly.
The rising Economic Freedom Fighters may gain at the polls, but for the moment they remain marginal in terms of electoral politics. The ANC is still likely to prevail at next year’s elections, but this certainty should not deter Ramaphosa, the country’s new leader, from enacting wide-scale party reforms.
If Ramaphosa has the courage, his task will not be limited to addressing corruption. He should focus on resurrecting the tripartite alliance that Zuma virtually destroyed during his tenure.
The once strong labour movement played an important role in pushing debates within the ANC and ensuring that a democratic culture was a bedrock of the organisation. And with an organisation across the country, it provided much-needed manpower in election campaigns.
The other leg of the alliance was the South Africa Communist party (SACP). While it did not have a mass base, it had an important intellectual tradition and offered critical inputs that challenged ANC orthodoxy in the late 1990s and early 2000s.
Zuma was able to co-opt senior SACP leaders, offering them cushy ministerial posts in exchange for their loyalty. The same applies to the media and civil society in general, even the courts. Ramaphosa needs to extend a hand to those parts of society and politics that have been insulted and diminished in the last few years.
Even without Zuma at the helm, the current leadership of the ANC still seems not to understand the relationship between a democratic society and a democratic party. A democratic ANC, in which debate is encouraged and criticism is taken seriously, is good for democracy in South Africa.
More importantly, a more democratic South Africa – in which civic groups, media outlets and others are able to raise questions and challenge their leaders – is good for the ANC.
In the short term, the dialogue between the ANC and the country it has ravaged may be tough. In the long term, if it wants to last another century the oldest political party in Africa will have no choice but to listen and strengthen its commitment to genuine democracy.
The ANC may be presenting Zuma’s removal as its own choice, but the country knows better: the people have spoken.
*This article was published in The Guardian. To view the article on their website click here.