Jacob Zuma is a larger-than-life figure when it comes to South African politics. For the past six years his presence has dominated headlines, with no shortage of scandal, controversy, and near fanatical adoration. Recent news of a call for a vote of no confidence in Zuma comes as a surprise, but it also tops off a turbulent year in South Africa’s political arena, with questions on what this new motion for a vote of no confidence means for Zuma presidency, as well as what it means for party politics.
When Tourism minister Derek Hanwood reportedly called for Zuma to step down as president, his calls were supported by health minister Aaron Motsoaledi, public works minister Thulas Nxesi , and the African National Congress (ANC) chief whip Jackson Mthembu. This is not the first time that Zuma has faced a vote of no confidence. This year alone, South Africa’s president has faced a vote of no confidence three times, the last one having been called by opposition party the Democratic Alliance (DA). What makes this latest attempt different from the others is that it came from within the ANC, the party that steered Zuma to the presidency.
Although Jacob Zuma has survived this call for a vote of no confidence (the ANC’s National Executive Committee declined to accept the call for the vote), it speaks to how his scandals have battered confidence in his leadership, and negatively affected the ANC’s position with its voters.
Zuma is no stranger to scandal
In 2005, he was indicted on 700 corruption charges related to a controversial arms deal, but he was soon acquitted. A few months later, Zuma stood trial for rape. Although he was acquitted, the rape trial was brought back to public attention in August of this year when four women disrupted a press conference, holding up posters with the hashtag #RememberKhwezi (“Khwezi” was the pseudonym used for the accuser, in order to protect her identity). Then came #Nkandlagate, where Zuma allegedly used state funds to upgrade his home at Nkandla to the tune of roughly USD $1.75 million. Zuma has managed to come back on top each time, being re-elected as South Africa’s president in 2014.
Zuma’s support in the ANC remained unshaken. That is, until 2016, when distrust and frustration with his leadership started to show. In this year’s municipal elections, the ANC lost strongholds in Tshwane and Nelson Mandela Bay to a rival party, and they barely hung onto control of Johannesburg. Disillusionment with Zuma’s presidency played a large part in this stunning turnaround, despite a heavy social media campaign and the enlistment of celebrity faces. The population still remember what had happened at the tail end of 2015, when Zuma fired Finance Minister Nhlanhla Nene and appointed David van Rooyen to the position, only to replace him three days later with Pravin Gordhan. This shuffling sent the economy into a tailspin, costing South Africa R99 billion.
Then came the “State Capture” report.
The report, compiled by former Public Protector Thuli Madonsela and her team and published on 2 November, outlines the extent to which corruption has taken hold in South Africa. Jacob Zuma is in the eye of this storm. The report details the relationship between Zuma and the wealthy Gupta family and how they have influenced appointments of government officials, with large sums of money to grease the bureaucratic wheels. Attempts to bribe ministers to look the other way, to make it easier for the Guptas to do business and make an estimated R2 billion in profits. The State Capture report simply confirmed their fears. The report galvanized opposition parties and citizens into action. Calls for Zuma’s resignation grew louder, and this time, from within his stronghold in the ANC.
The reasons why Zuma keeps bouncing back are complex. His political charisma and charm is the most important: that he successfully ousted Thabo Mbeki from the presidency shows not just how savvy he is in navigating the political terrain, but he also holds sway over the minds and hearts of his supporters. Time and again, critics and commentators have underestimated Zuma’s intelligence and ability to manipulate, negotiate, and undermine his opponents. Instead they focus on lampooning his behavior, which in itself contributes to his stature among supporters. When he is mocked for his lack of formal education, others see a man who rose to the top despite all odds. When he is accused of rape or corruption, others see powerful political figures intent on bringing Zuma down at all costs. When he is criticized for embarrassing the country with his antics, others see a man who is fiercely proud of his South African heritage and refuses to change himself to a more Western code of behavior. Some of his behavior, such as singing the famous “Mshini wami” liberation song and dancing in his traditional Zulu attire, may seem like buffoonery to some, but it has endeared him to others. After the calm and collected Nelson Mandela, the clinical Thabo Mbeki and immemorable Kgalema Mothlanthe, Zuma’s colourful personality has made him stand out.
A Durable Politician
Just like his other scandals, Zuma managed to evade the vote of no confidence. However, his reputation and standing in his political party has not survived unscathed. For close to ten years, Zuma has come to embody the ANC. In the minds of many, especially the party supporters, Zuma is the ANC, and the ANC cannot survive without Zuma. That his party could even consider asking him to resign signals that the untouchable Zuma may not be quite so untouchable without the support of his party members. With South Africa’s next presidential elections in 2019, it remains to be seen whether Zuma can remain in the position until then, or whether he will be forced out of the position.