Jacob Zuma sold himself to South Africans as Everyman, that allegorical character that could so easily be you. With his lilting laugh and easy smile, he promised something different.
He was the rural patriarch, a party loyalist, and he was under attack. And it was ultimately the idea that Zuma was under constant attack that forged the cult of his personality. From the alliance in the early days, to the “premier league” later on, Zuma became the centre of a new nexus of power.
But power was never the stated objective. He could connect with the people, his supporters enthused. And he would do good by the people in a way previous administrations had failed. And so, the thousands of people in the ANC who had grown weary of the cult of personality around an “aloof” Thabo Mbeki were heartened. In Zuma, there was the hope of something different. He was everything that Mbeki could never be. Or so he promised.
Ten years later, Jacob Zuma was undoubtedly different. His administration was disastrous for South Africa. The report into state capture by the Public Affairs Research Institute, Betrayal of the Promise: How SA is Being Stolen, said it thus: “Whereas the promise of 1994 was to build a state that would serve the public good, the evidence suggests that our state institutions are being repurposed to serve the private accumulation interests of a small, powerful elite. The deepening of the corrosive culture of corruption within the state, and the opening of spaces for grafting a shadow state on to the existing constitutional state, has brought the transformation programme to a halt, and refocused energies on private accumulation.”
Cyril Ramaphosa is the heir of the Zuma disaster. Although he disavows participation in the Zuma project, he was also a member of that administration, deputy president for four of those “nine wasted years”. With record unemployment and stubborn levels of low growth, Ramaphosa will struggle to shake off the Zuma legacy. The national debt-to-GDP ratio is expected to reach 56.2% this year, more than double the 21.8% of 2009.
What’s more, the Zuma years saw the most significant political shift since 1994. When the ANC lost Johannesburg and Tshwane in 2016, it was a blow to the party’s conception of itself as the beloved liberation movement. Zuma would reshuffle his Cabinet 11 times during his term in power. Many of those reshuffles were incomprehensible to all but Zuma. What was clear, however, was the way Zuma used these reshuffles to quell those he suspected of disloyalty. Similarly, provincial and regional leadership structures became the domain of Zuma loyalists. There was no space for dissent.
Weakness of the opposition
In the face of what has become almost endemic corruption, maladministration and incompetence by the ruling party in every sphere of government, it is also an indictment on the part of the opposition that we have not seen a seismic shift in voting patterns to match the wasted years of South Africa’s Zuma-induced calamity.
Yes, the opposition called out the former president and the ANC for the multiple failures at every turn, with the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) in particular reinventing Parliament as a site to lampoon Zuma and hold him to account.
The Democratic Alliance (DA) has brought critical matters before the courts, which have helped stem the flood of fraudulent activities under the ANC. The gains by both the DA and EFF critically saw a shift in power in Nelson Mandela Bay and the two major Gauteng metros of Johannesburg and Tshwane. With a tailor-made villain in power and a complicit ruling party in tow, the advantage to be had was as wide as the Blyde River Canyon.
But ultimately, despite the incremental gains, both the main opposition parties should be engaged in deep introspection as to what can only be seen as their failure to wrest power from the ruling party. On the DA’s side, this can in part be attributed to bungling its internecine battles, which have been laid bare in an untimely way. For the EFF, the fallout from the VBS scandal continues to threaten its fortunes, while the possibly more significant threat of a personality-run party lurks ominously.
Impact on the ANC
It would be unfair to place responsibility for all of the ANC’s problems at Zuma’s door — corruption, patronage and the erosion of internal democracy in the party were all undoubtedly present before he rose to its helm in 2007.
But Zuma and his faction mastered the art of centralising power and authority in a more sinister way than any of his predecessors. Opponents were ruthlessly dispensed with, evidenced by at least four major splits in the congress movement during his tenure. From Cosatu, to the ANC Youth League and the military veterans, no organisation was spared once elements inside questioned his rule.
Central to his power, as national executive committee (NEC) member Ngoako Ramatlhodi told the state capture commission, was Zuma’s near-complete control of the party’s NEC. The structure, with a long tradition in the ANC, established over five decades ago, was the first to be completely captured.
He was shielded by the vast majority of NEC members, beholden to him through a network of patronage that has still not been dismantled, as evidenced in the relentless fight for control by the faction aligned to secretary general Ace Magashule. Last year, he told his allies in this faction that it was simply a “matter of five years, comrades”, before they regained control of the ANC.
The “Zuma way” is the new normal in the ANC, which is why Magashule and the like, far from being rejected at its national conference in 2017, were voted into positions of power.
The new normal in the ANC renders Ramaphosa’s reform and renewal agenda almost impossible. This is worsened by the fact that the president seems genuine in his belief that “unity” with a power-mongering, corrupt and wholly irredeemable faction — which propped up Zuma over the last decade — was workable, let alone possible. The corrupt faction and those who long for the return of the worst excesses of the Zuma years continue to hide comfortably behind the unity narrative while contradicting it in their own conduct.
A renewed ANC would be in the best interests of the country, as long as the party is in power, but there is little chance of this happening unless Ramaphosa is willing to make bold decisions about the kind of party he wants to lead — and he has shown no such appetite in his 15 months at the ANC’s helm.