The political end of Mr. Zuma was at hand in 2004 when his financial adviser and businessman, Mr. Schabir Shaik, was put on trial for taking bribes from arms deals and accused of channeling funds to Mr. Zuma. The sensational trial attracted a lot of public and media interest. Mr. Shaik was found guilty in June 2005, and began in November 2006 to serve a 15-year jail term after his appeal to the Supreme Court failed. During the trial, Mr. Shaik denied ever soliciting bribes for Mr. Zuma and said that the monies that exchanged hands were only interest-free loans to help Mr. Zuma, then Deputy President.
In passing judgment, the court said many unflattering statements about Mr. Zuma, so much that his critics called on him to resign but his supporters rejected such demands. The most powerful trade union in South Africa, COSATU, said that the trial judge went beyond his brief in implicating Mr. Zuma who was not involved in the trial at any stage. However, in deference to public opinion, Mr. Zuma resigned his seat in parliament.
President Thabo Mbeki, in whose cabinet Mr. Zuma was serving, relieved the deputy President of his responsibilities. Mr. Zuma was openly investigated and charged for corruption, which charges were dropped as unlawful, politically motivated and technically flawed, after years of political and legal wrangling. Judge Nicholson found Mr. Zuma not guilty and the African National Congress (ANC) embraced Mr. Zuma with songs and applause. On 12 January 2009, the Supreme Court of Appeal unanimously overturned judge Nicholson’s judgment, but no new trial was started. Mr. Zuma had then assumed position as president of the ANC.
In the fateful 2005 that heralded larger than life problems for Mr. Zuma, he was accused of rape and charged to court. In a most sensational trial at the time, Mr. Zuma admitted that he had consensual sex with the woman in question, but no rape took place. He also said that he had a shower afterwards to prevent possible HIV infection as the woman was positive for the virus. Mr. Zuma was cleared of the rape charge but his shower explanation as antidote to HIV infection was loudly ridiculed for someone who should have known better. The situation was thought to signal again Mr. Zuma’s adieu to politics. But it was wrong.
In a masterful political dexterity, Mr. Zuma, who had been a member of the ANC since age 17, worked his way back up the party ladder. In a contest between himself and then President Mbeki, Mr. Zuma won and was elected ANC president in 2007, a most powerful position in the country. The ANC, as the ruling party, determines the actions of government. Mr. Zuma’s victory went a notch higher when the party recalled President Mbeki in September 2008. This is a euphemism for asking the president to resign which he did, nine months before his term ended. He was replaced by ANC deputy President, Mr. Kgalema Motlanthe, who served as interim president before the elections of 2009.
President Zuma is not new to challenges. He was brought up by a widowed mother and he had no formal education. Like many in the ANC, he had devoted his life to the anti-apartheid struggle. He left the country for military training and actively worked as a member of ANC’s Umkhonto We Sizwe, the military branch. He took part actively in the insurgency against the white, segregationist, oppressive, apartheid regime. He was arrested and jailed in Robben Island for 10 years along with Mr. Nelson Mandela.
Gifted with a personality of bonhomie, ordinariness, and a political sagacity that must be the envy of his enemies, JZ, as he is called by his admirers, became President in May 2009, a foregone conclusion once he had assumed leadership of the ANC. Since then, his capacity to make small gestures hugely attractive and to deflect big political bullets has stood him in good stead. With natural ease, he continues to ride over turbulent waves.
In April 2013, a private plane full of wedding guests landed at the Waterkloof Air Force Base in Pretoria. The plane belonged to a wealthy, business-owning family called the Guptas, well connected and very close to President Zuma. Originally from India, the family’s businesses include IT, media and mining. President’s Zuma’s son, Duduzane, is known to be a business partner of the Guptas. The irregular landing of a civilian jet at a military enclave caused an uproar. A ministerial task force was set up to look into the matter. Fortunately for President Zuma, the task force found that the president did not have any role in the wrongdoing. President Zuma was relieved but there were many who insisted that as president he should assume responsibility for the security lapse of his friends’ actions.
The year 2015 was ominous for President. Zuma. A deluge of major problems ensued, fanned into billowing flames by his antecedents, critics, opposition parties, and ever-watchful media. Within the ANC itself, cracks began to show as some high-ranking members spoke directly and indirectly of their discomfort with the president’s many problems.
Since 2012, complaints had been lodged with the Public Protector, Ms. Thuli Madonsela, by some members of the public and political parties over alleged misuse of state funds to refurbish the private residence of the Zuma family in Nkandla, his place of birth. A security appraisal of the compound done after President Zuma took office showed that additional measures were required. Ms. Madonsela in her report of March 2014 stated that some modifications and additions done were beyond security upgrades. They included the construction of a swimming pool and a cattle kraal . The report also found the president wanting in protecting and making judicious uses of state resources. She concluded that President Zuma had benefited unduly from the Rands 246 million ($16 million) that the state spent on the upgrades and asked him to refund an amount to be determined by working with the Treasury and the South African Police Service for elements that were not related to security.
Through 2015, the president explained that he had no say in what was done at his residence. Senior government officials for security characterized all upgrades done as security measures. The ANC-majority parliament cleared the President of any misdeeds. President Zuma had nothing to pay for. But Nkandla-gate, as it became known, continued to generate public interest and calls for the President to refund money would not go away, thanks to the opposition parties, especially the Julius Malema-led Economic Freedom Front (EFF) and Democratic Alliance (DA).
For a while, another series of missteps pushed Nkadla-gate to the background. In a sudden decision, on 9 December 2015, President Zuma replaced Finance Minister. Mr. Nhlanhla Nene, with an apparent loyalist, Mr. David Van Rooyen, a member of parliament. Mr. Nene was said to have opposed increased subsidy of the persistently under-performing South African Airways, refused the government to make a huge investment in a nuclear facility and rejected buying a presidential jet. In reaction to the sack, the South African Rand dropped famously and the Johannesburg Stock Exchange lost 177 billion Rands ($11.6bn) on the announcement.
A cabinet minister said that the decision was a surprise as it was not discussed at the cabinet meeting of the same day that the official decision came out. The ANC was at a loss to explain it either as it appeared not to have any information. The ensuing public uproar was so much that four days later the President changed the decision and redeployed newly appointed Mr. Van Rooyen to another post, and named Mr. Pravin Gordhan as new minister of finance. Mr. Gordhan had served reputably in the same post from 2009 to 2014. It was historic that South Africa had three finance ministers in four days. President Zuma, to deflect the rancor, was projected as a listening leader who bowed to the wish of the people. There were many though who said that the decision showed poor judgment, lack of consultation and tendency to cater to special interest.
Did the Gupta family have any hand in the sacking of Mr. Nene? The question was on some lips but was not openly stated as such. The cat was let out of the bag, literally, by former ANC member of parliament, Ms. Vytjie Mentor. She stated that the Guptas had offered her a ministerial post provided that she would “drop the SAA flight route to India and give it to them”. The deputy Minister of Finance, Mr. Mcebisi Jones, publicly declared that before President Zuma announced the change of ministers, members of the Gupta family made an offer to promote him to Minister of Finance and that he categorically refused it. He said that such a proposition “made mockery of our hard earned democracy, the trust of our people and no one apart from the President of the Republic appoints ministers”. A former cabinet spokesperson, Mr. Themba Maseko, revealed that the President asked him to help the Guptas out by favouring them with government adverts. The “state capture” of South Africa by the Guptas and special interest went from a rumble to an eruption.
The heat around the president became intense. Would President Zuma resign? Would the ANC recall him? Would he announce something about cutting short his term of office which is three years to go? The usual voices pressured that Zuma should go or be impeached. The supporting voices asked for time to look deeper into the matter.
Another blowup was just around the corner. A court case by DA and EFF on Nkadla-gate came to a conclusion at the Constitutional Court. The unanimous judgment was that President Zuma should refund the money spent on his homestead of Nkandla which were not security upgrades. The presidency, the Parliament, the ANC, and President Zuma had been wrong in their position on the non-security categorization and expenses on them. The court ruling stated that the president “failed to uphold, defend and respect the Constitution as the supreme law of the land…”
It was the last thing that President Zuma would have wished for. Yet another major slip that could erase any of his good actions, such as his leadership of a national surge to rein in HIV and AIDS, his success at getting many highly qualified and deserving South Africans into senior posts in the international system, including Dr. Dlamini Zuma, his divorced wife and long-serving senior official of ANC and government, as Chairperson of the African Union, and his continuing to provide leadership for South Africa’s roles in peace keeping and peace building initiatives in conflict and war-torn countries. The President’s string of scandals increasingly make his friendly description as comical, colourful, charismatic, and convivial to be subsumed by his critical characterization as controversial, corrupt, crooked, and cronyistic.
Again the usual voices demanded impeachment or resignation. What was new was that unusual voices added new dimensions to the anti-Zuma groups. A joint letter by the foundations of Oliver and Adelaide, Nelson Mandela, Ahmed Kathrada, some of the founding fathers of the ANC and notable leaders of liberation, urged the ANC leadership to “take urgent corrective action in the best interest of South Africa and its peoples”. “We are deeply concerned about the current course on which our country is headed. We believe this course is contrary to the individual and collective legacy of our founders”.
A strongly worded statement signed by Presiding Bishop of the Methodist Church of Southern Africa , Ziphozihle Siwa, said that the president should “do the honourable thing and resign to save himself, the ANC and the nation as a whole from further embarrassment and ruin…If this does not happen, we the people of South Africa must put pressure on the ANC and Parliament to ‘assist’ the President to vacate office peacefully and constitutionally. The president’s embattled term of office has been marred with too many unresolved claims and scandals including Nkandla, the arms deal debacle, and the recent revelations of alleged State Capture by the Guptas and the time has come to put the country first.”
What is next for President Zuma? Following the ruling by the Constitutional Court, he went on the air to apologize and blamed his erroneous decision on advice from lawyers. The ANC has started its own investigation to assess the extent of “state capture”. The opposition parties have tried another of the many parliamentary motions for impeachment of President Zuma though it was dead from its conception given the ANC super majority.
With his expanded laughter and a reassuring wave to the crowd, President Zuma may just zoom on as he has done in the past, counting on his strong bases within the various arms of the ANC and his reputation as the man who has many lives.
Bunmi Makinwa is the CEO of AUNIQUEI Communication for Leadership