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South Africa: Democracy at Risk

South Africa’s President treats his country as his own personal fiefdom and that of his cronies

Credit: Instinia


  • Gordhan: South Africa has a long tradition of popular uprising. The masses make history, not individuals.
  • Zuma treats the critics in his party with the contempt with which he treats the Constitution, the law and pretty much everything else.
  • Founded 100 years ago, Nelson Mandela is the best-known ANC leader. But under Zuma, the party has lost support.

At midnight on March 30th, South African president Jacob Zuma made a stunning grab for unchallenged power. He dismissed multiple members of his cabinet, most significantly the minister and deputy minister of finance.

By firing Pravin Gordhan and his deputy, Mcebisi Jonas, Zuma opened the way to possible looting of public assets in Africa’s most advanced economy.

Respected as competent and honest, Gordhan and Jonas for months resisted approval of irregular transactions that could have enriched shadowy figures associated with Zuma.

At a press conference on March 31st, the two ousted officials were greeted with sustained applause. Jonas spoke first, saying the economy was being corrupted “by a diversion of state assets to particular interests.”

This was an obvious reference to the three Gupta brothers, immigrants from India, who are business partners with the president’s son. “History is unfolding,” he warned, “South Africa is at a crossroads.”

Gordhan, a cerebral circumspact lawyer, opined that legitimate authority was being undermined by people who operated out of sight.

Calling for disclosure of backroom dealings, he pleaded, “democracy can only work if citizens are informed.” Referring to the Guptas, Gordhan said, “if decisions affecting our country are being taken elsewhere, we should be very afraid.”

Corruption charges on the Guptas

This is not the first time that Zuma has ousted a finance minister and sought to bring the ministry under personal control. In December 2015, Zuma dismissed Nhlanhla Nene, replacing him with an unknown back-bencher with little financial experience.

A precipitous drop in the rand along with demands from shocked ruling party officials and financiers, forced Zuma to reverse course after only four days and bring in Gordhan, who had been finance minister from 2009 to 2014.

Analysts wonder if a similar scenario will unfold now as the rand declined 7% in the past week. Opposition parties are introducing a no confidence measure in parliament and the communists, members of the ruling coalition, are calling for Zuma’s resignation.

At their press conference, Gordhan and Jonas pointed to Gupta’s corruption documented in the 355-page report prepared by former public protector Thuli Madonsela and released over Zuma and Gupta’s objections last November.

Entitled “State of Capture,” Madonsela details how the Guptas offered Jonas a multi-million-dollar bribe to take over the finance ministry in return for doing their bidding.

The secret nuclear power deal

Ajay Gupta allegedly told Jonas they had been keeping tabs on him and wanted him to be their man in the treasury.

Ajay Gupta revealed that they had already made 6 billion rand ($443 million) from dealings with the government, and wanted to make at least 2 billion rand more (about $147 million).

The Guptas deny the story. Facing legal challenges, the Guptas moved out of South Africa in April 2016 and established residence in Dubai.

Eskom, the state-owned power monopoly, is a profit center for the Guptas-Tegeta mining firm that is half-owned by Duduzane Zuma, the president’s son.

Tegeta has a lucrative contract to supply coal to Eskom. Gupta companies are seeking control of South African uranium mines that could supply several nuclear power stations the government wants to purchase from Russia.

Details of the secretive nuclear deal, thought to be worth over $70 billion, have not been revealed.

Gordhan’s call to citizens

In 2015, Nene was fired as finance minister after he refused to support Zuma’s request that state-owned South African Airways open a route to Sudan, whose president is Zuma’s friend.

Wanted by the International Criminal Courts, South Africa refused to arrest Omar al-Bashir when he visited the country in 2015.

The Guptas were similarly rebuffed when they asked that SAA abandon its route to Mumbai and transfer it to an Indian airline favored by the family.

Gordhan said citizens should connect the dots and link the findings of the corruption report with his dismissal. He said, leaders of state-owned companies must represent the interests of the people and not do their own thing.

Asked what South Africans can do to combat corruption, Gordhan replied, “organize.” Citing his own experience as an anti-apartheid activist in the 1970s and 80s, Gordhan said, South Africa has a long tradition of popular uprising. “The masses,” he said, “make history, not individuals.”

Zuma’s contempt for the system

Zuma has been dogged by corruption charges since before he became head of the African National Congress and president in 2009.

He was implicated in a multi-billion arms deal in the 1990s. He was also recently forced to pay back state funds used to build a vast private residence in Kwa Zulu Natal.

Zuma’s presidential term extends into 2019 but a party congress in December is expected choose a successor. His favored candidate is ex-wife, Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, a former minister and leader of the African Union. Zuma currently has four wives and is reputed to have fathered 20 children.

Political analyst John Kane-Berman, former head of the South African Institute of Race Relations, says Zuma has thrown down the gauntlet, convinced that he can overpower his opponents.

“He treats the critics in his party with the contempt with which he treats the Constitution, the law, ratings agencies, investors, state-owned entities, taxpayers, the national currency, bond and equity markets and pretty much everything else. The dismissal of Gordhan shows that he will not change,” added John Kane-Berman.

The ANC’s downfall

The ANC remains by far South Africa’s dominant political grouping. It is credited with defeating apartheid and bringing about democracy in 1994. Founded over 100 years ago, Nelson Mandela remains the best-known ANC leader. But under Zuma, the party has lost support.

The ANC’s share of the vote declined to 62% in the 2014 parliamentary elections. And in municipal elections last year, the ANC lost control of Johannesburg, Pretoria and Port Elizabeth. Cape Town was already ruled by the opposition.

Zuma’s conduct and defiance of calls to resign could split the ANC, creating opportunities for the opposition in the 2019 elections.

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About Barry Wood

Barry D. Wood is a Washington writer and broadcaster. His new book is Exploring New Europe, a Bicycle Journey. His twitter handle is @econbarry

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