Nelson Mandela’s dream of a free, prosperous and nonracial South Africa has turned into a nightmare. The nation’s constitution, often hailed as one of the most progressive in the world, is under siege by the very man who took an oath to protect it.
President Jacob Zuma, in office since 2009, is subverting democracy. Mr. Zuma, who recently survived his fourth no-confidence vote in Parliament, has enabled political patronage and exploited South Africa’s institutions for his own benefit and that of the ruling elites in his party, the African National Congress. He has grossly mismanaged the country’s resources and engaged in acts of far-reaching cronyism. Saddest of all, Mr. Zuma has fomented a deep sense of disillusionment among many of the nation’s black youth.
Yes, Mr. Mandela’s new order brought prosperity to post-apartheid South Africa, but the distribution of economic benefits was skewed in favor of the white establishment and black elite. Even today, little of this prosperity has reached the black youth, and many blame Mr. Mandela for delivering what they see as a superficial notion of freedom rather than an enduring democracy with opportunities for all.
Mr. Zuma’s rampant corruption has bolstered this disillusionment.
For instance, shortly after he became president, Mr. Zuma spent 246 million rand (about $23 million at the time) in state funds to upgrade his private country residence. In 2014, South Africa’s Office of the Public Protector ordered Mr. Zuma to reimburse some of those costs, yet he resisted for more than a year, at times pointing to the A.N.C.’s majority in Parliament to validate his defiance. Eventually, South Africa’s High Court ordered him to comply with the public protector’s order, but the impunity has continued.
More recently, according to media reports, leaked emails and the findings of the public protector, Mr. Zuma outsourced some aspects of governance to a family of expats from India that has established businesses with his son, Duduzane Zuma, and is profiting from government contracts while exerting political influence wherever it can. The family — brothers Ajay, Atul and Rajesh Gupta, and their nephew Varun Gupta — even influence ministerial appointments.
In 2016 Mcebisi Jonas, then a deputy minister of finance, reported that he had been summoned to the Gupta family mansion and offered 600 million rand (about $43 million) if he accepted the position of finance minister. According to Mr. Jonas, the Guptas told him that the president was going to remove the current minister of finance, who had allegedly blocked some lucrative contracts and become an obstacle to the Guptas’ access to the treasury.
Mr. Jonas had enough integrity to refuse the offer. But Mr. Zuma nevertheless replaced the finance minister with a Gupta-approved official, who, after a public outcry, lasted only a weekend.
Meanwhile, as the Guptas and Duduzane Zuma amass untold wealth in South Africa, and as allegations of their profiteering dominate the headlines, President Zuma’s ruling A.N.C. has fractured and weakened.
And yet the president continues to enjoy powerful support from sectors of the electorate. Mr. Zuma remains popular in rural areas, particularly among the Zulu people, South Africa’s largest ethnic group. They embrace him as a charismatic, conservative man with four wives who speaks their language at political rallies and makes inside ethnic jokes.
Another source of power for Mr. Zuma is South Africa’s electoral system, which is not constituency-based, but proportion-based. Voters do not directly elect their representatives; they vote for political parties. Party bosses then compile lists of candidates and dictate how members of the legislatures should vote. All of them toe the line, since none want to jeopardize their livelihoods.
Then there is the Umkhonto We Sizwe Military Veterans Association, a ragtag army of ardent Zuma supporters in ill-fitting camouflage uniforms who purport to be veterans of the A.N.C.’s guerrilla war against the apartheid regime (though members in their early 20s are too young to have fought in a war that ended more than 25 years ago). Mr. Zuma recently tried to put this group on a war footing, instructing them to close ranks behind him and defend his beleaguered “revolution” against those who protest against him.
Not all is lost, however. Despite South Africa’s perverted state, the independent judiciary has been a saving grace, and a robust media regularly exposes government corruption. Additionally, the Congress of South African Trade Unions, the South African Communist Party and factions within the A.N.C. have banded together and demanded that Mr. Zuma step down. So have a number of civil society organizations (some led by A.N.C. members), which have organized mass demonstrations in major cities.
Additionally, opposition parties, previously weak and ineffectual, have a much louder voice since being joined in Parliament by the Economic Freedom Fighters, a more radical party that has gained a large following among unemployed black youths.
Despite all this, Mr. Zuma is unlikely to relinquish power.
Were he to step down, civil groups and the opposition would undoubtedly see to it that the 783 criminal charges of corruption and money laundering leveled against Mr. Zuma in 2009 be reactivated. The charges were dropped shortly before his election as president, but last year South Africa’s High Court ordered that they be reinstated. However, the prosecution authority is stalling. Additional charges relating to the Guptas are likely to be added.
Mr. Zuma is also trying to position his ex-wife, Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, to take over as president in 2019 when his second term ends, most likely in the hope that she will grant him a pardon.
The opposition parties are demanding that Mr. Zuma step down now. But it is unlikely that any party will secure an outright majority in 2019; instead, the opposition parties will gang up against the A.N.C. and form coalitions in some provinces. They have already done so in three major metropolitan areas where the A.N.C. failed to get a majority in the last local election.
For too long Mr. Zuma has fostered a culture of arrogance and impunity among the ruling elite, and for too long the decay has continued unabated. South Africa must change course, before a troubled democracy is reduced to a thugocracy.
Zakes Mda is emeritus professor of English at Ohio University and Extraordinary Professor of English at the University of the Western Cape. His latest book is Little Suns.