South African President Jacob Zuma’s woes continue to worsen. Last week, South Africa’s highest court ruled he had violated the constitution. That verdict follows a series of scandals suggesting the president’s judgment has been compromised by relationships with a family of South African businessmen. While the opposition has called for impeachment proceedings, Zuma continues to enjoy the confidence of the ruling African National Congress (ANC). Until he loses that backing, he will remain in power. South Africa, however, will continue to be damaged by Zuma’s behavior and the allegations that swirl around him.
In 2014, the public prosecutor’s office — a post-apartheid innovation that was designed to ensure independent investigations into official wrongdoing — charged the president with spending $16 million in state funds on renovations to his residence in Nkandla, about 500 km from Johannesburg. The president countered that the charges were needed to boost security at his estate and thus were legitimate state expenditures, and his allies attacked the prosecutor, alleging among other things that she was in the pay of the CIA. The National Assembly, controlled by the ANC, produced a report that exonerated Zuma.
Undaunted, the Constitutional Court ruled last week that Zuma’s refusal to honor the prosecutor’s order to pay a portion of the costs — for a swimming pool, cattle enclosure, chicken run, amphitheater and visitor center — constituted a failure “to uphold, defend and respect the constitution.” After the verdict, Zuma went on state television, apologizing for causing “a lot of frustration and confusion,” and said that he “never knowingly or deliberately set out to violate the constitution.” He blamed bad legal advice and said he would pay as ordered.
His declaration that this put an end to the matter did not mollify the critics. The head of the largest opposition party dismissed the response, calling it “a completely hollow statement from a broken president.”
Controversy and scandal have been constant companions throughout Zuma’s political career. He has been charged with rape — he was found not guilty — and was accused of corruption and influence peddling in relation to an arms procurement deal; those charges were later dropped.
In recent months, however, allegations have taken on a new character and their implications have been much more important. The most recent scandal began with the surprise decision in December to replace Finance Minister Nhlanhla Nene, a widely respected figure, with a veritable unknown. At the time, the decision was inexplicable — some said it was related to conflicts about funding for the state airline. South Africa’s currency and the stock market plunged in response; within four days, the new minister was dismissed and a more respected replacement installed.
In the aftermath, several individuals claimed that high-ranking jobs, including that of finance minister, had been offered to them by members of the Gupta family, a powerful family with business ties to the president’s family, on the condition that they help their commercial interests. The Guptas and the president deny the allegations.
The Guptas have done well in South Africa and they have been close to Zuma since 2000. His son owns shares in several of the family companies, his daughter was a director of another and one of his former wives worked for yet another. Gupta businesses have close ties to state-owned enterprises in a variety of fields. The ANC and the prosecutor are said to be investigating the family and its influence. The Gupta family denies any illegal behavior and says that only 1 percent of its business comes from the South African government.
The official ANC line is that the relationship is above board and that the allegations are an attempt to split the party. The mounting scale of the charges, however, threatens to undermine Zuma’s support. The results of upcoming local elections will provide a barometer of public support for the president and give some indication of the damage that has been done.
Even if Zuma overcomes this scandal, he has larger and more important challenges ahead. The South African economy is in trouble. The International Monetary Fund has forecast a 0.7 percent growth in 2016, foreign direct investment dropped 29 percent from the previous year and business confidence has hit levels last seen during the apartheid era. Unemployment for young blacks is about 40 percent and basic services are unreliable. By one measure, public distrust in Zuma’s leadership has doubled over the five years of his presidency and has reached 66 percent.
A recovery will be impossible as long as Zuma himself is viewed as tainted and unreliable. South Africa should be the leading nation of sub-Saharan Africa. Its ability to overcome apartheid and transition to stability and prosperity under the ANC was an example for the world. But the legacy of Nelson Mandela has been tarnished and the ANC now appears more interested in protecting its interests than that of the country as a whole. Unless and until those priorities are reversed, South Africa will continue to spiral downward. Jacob Zuma is merely symptomatic of a larger problem.
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