After weeks of protests, days of urgent exhortations by government colleagues to step aside, one formal resignation request by party leadership and the threat of a no confidence motion in Parliament, South African President Jacob Zuma finally got the message.
Late in the evening of Feb. 14, the embattled leader of what used to be Africa’s most promising nation delivered a belated Valentine’s gift to his people. “I have … come to the decision to resign as the president of the Republic with immediate effect,” he announced, in a late-night televised address to the nation that came as a surprise. Most pundits thought it would take a parliamentary motion or even an impeachment to force him out.
The resignation of Zuma brings to an end years of turmoil in a scandal-weary nation plagued by relentless displays of corruption, fraud and influence peddling by the President and his cronies, yet seemingly unable to do anything about it. After almost nine years with Zuma in power, South Africa now has the opportunity to start over with a clean slate — but only if the country’s new leadership can cleanse itself of his toxic legacy.
While the roots of Zuma’s downfall go deep, starting with extensive corruption charges related to a 1999 arms deal that have yet to be resolved and followed by several more recent allegations, the beginning of the end started with the December 2017 elevation of Zuma’s Deputy President, Cyril Ramaphosa, to the head of the African National Congress (ANC).
Though national elections are still a year and a half away, the ANC is South Africa’s most powerful party, and, as its head, Ramaphosa was all but guaranteed to be the next president. Rather than subject the country to rule by two centers of power, one of which was tainted by corruption scandals that threatened to undermine the party’s electoral prospects, ANC officials deemed it wise to ask Zuma to step down from the presidency in favor of Ramaphosa. That would give the ANC time to recover from Zuma inflicted wounds before the 2019 elections.
Though Zuma claims to be a loyal party cadre, he wasn’t prepared to give up the presidency for the good of the ANC without a fight. “Why must I be persuaded to resign, have I done anything wrong?” Zuma griped in an exclusive interview with the state-owned South African Broadcast Corporation a few hours before his eventual resignation.
To even a casual observer, Zuma’s plaintive claims of victimizing by party politics rings hollow. This is a man who was charged by the state watchdog of using $28 million in taxpayer money to upgrade his personal residence with a swimming pool, a cattle corral, a chicken coop and other sundry “security measures” in 2014. (He eventually paid back some of the money in 2016, under duress).
Then there is his problematic relationship with a trio of Indian brothers, the Guptas, who have allegedly used their proximity to Zuma (they are in business with Zuma’s son, Duduzane) to influence cabinet positions and state policy in order to build up their business empire. Both Zumas, and the Guptas, deny the claims, but on Wednesday the country’s elite crimes investigation unit raided the Gupta residence and made several arrests. They are also seeking Duduzane in connection with a fraud scandal that siphoned state funds away from a black farmer empowerment initiative, according to local investigative journal, the Mail & Guardian.
Zuma went into his resignation speech still claiming innocence, passing off the many corruption allegations against him as minor peccadillos, the “detours, human error and boulders strewn along the path” of turning “a former liberation movement into a modern political party.” Yet many of these obstacles are of his own making, and they all contributed to the erosion of South Africa’s reputation from a country that inspired the world with Nelson Mandela’s call for peaceful reconciliation to a nation synonymous with self-serving leadership and government corruption.
It is now up to President Cyril Ramaphosa, who was swiftly elected by parliament less than 24 hours after his predecessor resigned, to reverse South Africa’s decline. In anticipation of South Africa’s new start, the rand rallied to its strongest point against the dollar since Dec. 2015, when Zuma fired the country’s well respected finance minister in favor of a loyal nobody, and the economy started a downward spiral that resulted in a recent downgrade to junk status by international ratings agencies.
But it is not enough that Ramaphosa, an anti-apartheid leader who went on to become one of the nation’s most successful businessmen, steers the country towards a new economic stability. The country is afflicted by a 25% unemployment rate and water shortages that have hamstrung large swathes of the west and east. More than two decades after the end of apartheid rule, South Africa is still one of the most unequal societies in the world. Ramaphosa has less than 18 months to reverse the worst of Zuma’s nine years in power, and it won’t be easy.
Now that the ANC has helped excise the most visible emblem of South African government corruption, it will have to start cleansing its own ranks of those who allowed, or even enabled, it to happen. The party can start with pursuing the lingering charges against Zuma, and continuing to support current investigations into the Guptas’ role in state capture. Without a clean slate, the country won’t really be able to turn the page, no matter how much hope it invests in its new leader.