Zuma Resigns: South Africa Loses Its Innocence

The South African president's departure marks the end of a term beset by corruption and poor governance.

President Jacob Zuma, South Africa’s fourth democratic head of state, resigned Wednesday amid an acrimonious battle for control of the nation and the governing party, the African National Congress.

He told South Africans during a late-night televised address that, although he disagreed with the decision by the ANC to remove him, he would leave “with immediate effect.”

It is an ignominious end to a presidency beset by charges of corruption, bad governance, opportunism, economic stagnation and criminality. When South Africa’s National Assembly convenes Thursday, it is expected to elect Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa, a Nelson Mandela protégé, as head of state.

Zuma, disgraced, will depart the presidency nine years after he was elected. He now faces prosecution and is likely to be ostracized by a party that once reportedly aided and abetted his pillaging of the state but which will now do its best to distance itself from its former leader.

While Zuma assumed the presidency under a cloud of corruption and amid deep doubts about his integrity, he once had the support of a large part of the electorate who was willing to give him the benefit of the doubt. Many believed that once he was elevated to the position once occupied by a figure as beloved as Mandela, he would rise to the occasion and become more effective than his predecessor, Thabo Mbeki, in advancing the national project of building a new society.

For a while, at least, he was a colossus upon South Africa’s political and national terrain, dominating his party and directing the affairs of state. But his repurposing of the nation to serve his personal interests undermined and wounded institutions, violated the constitution and reduced the ANC, which once fought to defeat white minority rule, to a patronage network.

Zuma saw the state as his personal protection racket, a network he could use to dispense patronage and wealth. But he also appeared determined to use his office to manipulate key institutions to ensure that he stay out of jail. He quickly took control of key institutions, including the police and intelligence and judicial systems, installing a succession of subservient political figures to protect him and his network.

Once he had neutered systems of accountability, he turned his attention to the economic sphere. He cleaned out the South African Revenue Service, installing as its commissioner a minion who engineered the wholesale gutting of one of the jewels in the civil service system.

Next up was National Treasury. His good friends and family benefactors, the Gupta brothers, needed access to state coffers, and when ministers of finance seemed to get in the way on two occasions, in December 2015 and again in March 2017, Zuma removed the ministers without consultation.

As a result of this so-called state capture, trust in government ― and in the ANC ― suffered greatly, and that eventually led to Zuma’s downfall.

A customer reacts while watching a telecast in a bar in Randburg, Johannesburg, as South African President Jacob Zuma announced his resignation Wednesday.
A customer reacts while watching a telecast in a bar in Randburg, Johannesburg, as South African President Jacob Zuma announced his resignation Wednesday.
WIKUS DE WET via Getty Images

Zuma took the reins of a governing party with an electoral majority of close to 70 percent. He went on to mold the ANC in his image: He became the ANC, and the ANC became him.

Today, the party is much diminished, its electoral future an uncertainty. The party, which has lost control of major cities, including Johannesburg and Pretoria, could dip below 50 percent in next year’s election and is now deeply divided. Its national conference in December led to a fragile and uncertain détente between battling factions ― one attempting to reform the party and the other seemingly still determined to use it as vehicle for maximum rent extraction from the nation.

But if there is a silver lining in the events of the last few months ― which included reporting by an independent press and the display of courage by public servants who called out or investigated corruption ― it is that it reminded South Africans of the lofty ideals that they built their democratic state on in 1994.

While South Africa may have lost its innocence, Zuma did not break the country.