Last-chance saloon for Zuma legacy

Generation next: President Jacob Zuma is appealing a high court ruling ordering him to explain why he fired the finance minister and his deputy, a move that sparked nationwide public protests. (Delwyn Verasamy)

Generation next: President Jacob Zuma is appealing a high court ruling ordering him to explain why he fired the finance minister and his deputy, a move that sparked nationwide public protests. (Delwyn Verasamy)


After a dismal first term in charge of the country, one would have expected President Jacob Zuma to invest all his energy in making up for the mistakes that occurred in his first five years in office. One would also have expected him to build a solid legacy by creating an environment that would put the country on a growth path and reduce the high level of unemployment. Instead, the opposite is happening.

The president’s first term was dominated by the Nkandla scandal, which saw more than R246-million of taxpayers’ money being spent to upgrade his rural homestead.

Now, state capture has become a prominent feature of his second term of office.

State capture can be broadly defined as systemic political corruption in which private interests influence a state’s decisions in such a way that those interests are given an undue advantage.

An investigation conducted by former public protector Thuli Madonsela last year revealed that the Gupta family played a key role in Cabinet appointments and made underhanded deals to pursue business interests, and that Zuma failed to act against such practices.

Barely two years into his second term, Zuma fired two competent finance ministers, Nhlanhla Nene and Pravin Gordhan. This has been widely interpreted as an attempt to capture the treasury, which has long been seen as an obstacle by those wanting to loot state resources.

Zuma’s miscalculation and his recent decision to remove Gordhan and his deputy, Mcebisi Jonas, are partly the reason why two rating agencies, Fitch and S&P Global, downgraded South Africa to junk status.

Imagine the kind of positive reaction Zuma would have received had he used the reshuffle to get rid of the dead wood in his Cabinet and replace underperforming ministers with competent cadres.

By doing so, the president could have avoided the embarrassing situation that led Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa, ANC secretary general Gwede Mantashe and ANC treasurer general Zweli Mkhize to distance themselves from his decision. All three accused him of failing to consult them, implying that the decision was made in Saxonwold, location of the Gupta family estate in Johannesburg.

Now Zuma also finds himself in the awkward position of having to provide reasons to the Democratic Alliance for firing Gordhan and Jonas, which the Johannesburg high court has ordered him to do.

At first, Zuma told his comrades in the ANC and the South African Communist Party that he had axed the two because of an intelligence report that claimed they were conspiring with international bankers to overthrow his administration.

He later told the party’s national working committee that he fired Gordhan because their relationship had broken down irretrievably. Last week, he told the World Economic Forum on Africa in Durban that he had reshuffled his Cabinet because he wanted to bring young people in.

Although Zuma has the prerogative to appoint and fire ministers, his decisions must be seen to be rational. Firing competent ministers and deputy ministers such as Gordhan, Jonas and Ngoako Ramatlhodi (the former public service and administration minister) could hardly be considered rational.

So far he has ignored calls by ordinary South Africans and the ANC’s alliance partners — trade union federation Cosatu and the SACP — for him to step down, and he describes the thousands of workers who booed him at May Day celebrations as a sign of a maturing democracy.

Zuma cannot be oblivious to the fact that an increasing number of ANC branch members and government employees want him out.

When he says he will vacate his seat only when the ANC says so, he knows very well that the party’s national executive committee (NEC), which is dominated by his faction, is unlikely to force him out. Many NEC members were appointed by Zuma to serve in his executive as ministers and deputy ministers.

The recent reshuffle is also seen as an attempt to intimidate his opponents within the Cabinet and the NEC. So credit should be given to some Cabinet ministers, particularly those from the SACP, who continue to speak out against corruption and state capture under his leadership.

The decision by new Finance Minister Malusi Gigaba to cancel a multimillion-rand deal with state arms firm Denel involving a Gupta-linked company should also be applauded.

The Sunday Times reported that Gigaba, who has previously admitted to visiting the Guptas and attending their Diwali celebrations, also instructed the Denel board chairperson, Dan Mantsha, to withdraw the parastatal’s high court application against the treasury. Denel had challenged Gordhan’s refusal to approve its joint venture with VR Laser Asia to form a new company, Denel Asia.

Police Minister Fikile Mbalula also started off his new role on a positive note after he acted swiftly and showed former Hawks boss Berning Ntlemeza the door following a high court judgment that ruled that his appointment was invalid.

The Mail & Guardian has it on good authority that Mbalula rejected Zuma’s instructions to reverse his decision, which the president was apparently persuaded to do by former SABC chief operating officer Hlaudi Motsoeneng and former government spin doctor Mzwanele Jimmy Manyi.

Mbalula was apparently particularly irritated because the president initially gave him his blessing to remove Ntlemeza.

New Communications Minister Ayanda Dlodlo has also started off on a positive note. Since her appointment, she has taken decisions that contradict those of her predecessor and Zuma’s close ally, Faith Muthambi.

Dlodlo brought back Phumla Williams as acting head of the Government Communication and Information System and has reportedly backed the encryption of set-top boxes, dumping Muthambi’s policy on encryption.

Matuma Letsoalo is the Mail & Guardian’s political editor

Matuma Letsoalo

Matuma Letsoalo

Matuma Letsoalo is the political editor of the Mail & Guardian. He joined the newspaper in 2003 and has won numerous awards since then, including the regional award for Vodacom Journalist of the Year in the economics and finance category in 2015, SA Journalist of the Year in 2011, the Mondi Shanduka SA Story of the Year award in 2008 and CNN African Journalist of the Year – MKO Abiola Print Journalism in 2004. Read more from Matuma Letsoalo

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