Why is scandal-hit South African President Zuma still in power?

Jacob Zuma is accused of corruption, abuse of power, and has even been tried for rape – yet manages to remain the nation's president.

Photo by: AFP
Photo by: AFP

South Africa’s President Jacob Zuma has so far survived repeated no-confidence votes against him in parliament this year.

Updated Dec 12, 2016

What are the accusations against President Jacob Zuma?

Sex and political corruption charges have plagued South African President Jacob Zuma since 2005 – so much so that “two potential candidates are ready to take his place once a planned exit strategy is implemented,” a senior advisor to the ruling African National Congress (ANC) told TRT World.

The herd boy-turned-freedom fighter has a strong support base within the ANC and is also much loved by the voting majority. Despite being accused of wrongdoing which has caused poignant divisions within the ANC, he has managed to survive at least three votes of no-confidence in Parliament. 

Here are some of the charges he’s faced:

  • Before assuming the presidency, Zuma, who was then 64, was accused of raping the 31-year-old HIV-positive daughter of a family friend, Fezeka Kuzwayo, or Khwezi as she was better known, in 2005. He was found not guilty, as he claimed that the sex was consensual. He angered AIDS activists when he told the court he had showered after having sex with her to avoid contracting the virus. He was head of the country’s national AIDS council at the time.

    She died in October after Zuma’s supporters relentlessly hounded her for years: “We should never forget her name. Fezeka Kuzwayo. Her life was completely smashed in 2005 and 2006. She was abused, hounded and castigated. It broke her. Her house was burnt down,” former intelligence minister and senior ANC member Ronnie Kasrils said.

Supporters of former Deputy President Jacob Zuma, including the ANC Women’s League, demonstrate their support outside a Johannesburg court on March 7, 2006. Zuma pleaded innocent to raping a family friend the previous year. (AP Archive)

  •  Zuma's links with wealthy businessmen who may have bribed members of his own cabinet were exposed in an anti-graft report that was released last month, causing a public outcry.

It suggested that Zuma had broken the Executive Member's Ethics Act or code of conduct through his relationship with the Gupta family who are known for their businesses spanning computer technology, media, and mining. The report exposed the extent of the family's influence over his government.

  • Zuma is facing charges relating to allegations of corruption, racketeering and money laundering over a multi-billion dollar government arms procurement deal in the late 1990s.

A high court ruling in June this year rejected Zuma’s application to appeal a decision to reinstate 783 criminal charges that were dropped five years ago. The opposition Democratic Alliance has pushed for the charges to be reinstated and more court hearings on are expected soon.

  • Another state public watchdog group discovered the president made multi-million dollar renovations to his private residence in Nkandla, in KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa’s largest province, using taxpayer money. The refurbishments included a swimming pool, visitor’s centre, amphitheatre, and chicken coop.

    In March, the Constitutional Court found the leader guilty of violating his oath of office by refusing to pay back the money. He eventually returned more than $500,000, an amount set by the treasury.

South African President Jacob Zuma has paid back the state after being instructed by the court to do so in a scandal over upgrades to his private home, Nkandla in the KwaZulu-Natal province. (AP Archives)

Who supports Zuma and why?

Zuma, the son of a domestic worker, enjoyed a meteoric rise to power because voters could relate to him being "one of them".

He has “a very strong appeal” to the working class and the poor, said Sdumo Dlamini, the president of the Congress of South African Trade Unions (Cosatu), an ANC ally.

“He’s a people’s person and has grown through the ranks of the working class. He knows the suffering of the ordinary folk.”

He was imprisoned by the Apartheid government for 10 years alongside Nelson Mandela and later exiled from South Africa.

After the nation’s first democratic elections in 1994, he managed the economic affairs of KwaZulu-Natal and was later appointed the nation’s deputy president. He led the late Nelson Mandela’s party (ANC) as it fought for free and fair elections.

Have Zuma’s scandals affected the ANC?

Zuma’s actions resulted in fault lines within the party.

Four ministers broke with tradition and tabled a vote of no-confidence at a routine ANC meeting at the end of November.

The rebellion “can be taken as a sign of just how deep dissatisfaction is with Jacob Zuma’s leadership, that some senior leaders have been prepared to risk their livelihood in supporting a vote they can expect to be punished for if they lose,” said independent political analyst Nic Borain.

“Jacob Zuma has already indicated that it would be untenable to have on his cabinet members who had supported his dismissal.”

Zuma’s supporters are now pressuring the four ministers to resign.

"Following robust, honest, candid, and at times difficult discussions, the (ANC national executive committee) did not support the call for the president to step down," ANC Secretary General Gwede Mantashe told reporters in Johannesburg after the National Executive Committee meeting on November 29, 2016. (AFP)

Under Zuma's leadership, the party that liberated South Africa after decades of white minority rule has also been accused of losing touch with the masses as the government is failing to tackle high unemployment, corruption, and slow economic growth.

The growing dissatisfaction was reflected in this year's local elections when the ruling party suffered a major loss and its worst-ever electoral performance. The elections, held in August, resulted in the party's loss of the capital Pretoria and Nelson Mandela Bay, a major metropolitan city.

Furthermore, the Electoral Institute of Southern Africa found support for the ANC had dropped by 9 percent in the past 22 years. It projected that the ruling party’s appeal could further decline unless it changed its policies.

Speaking after the elections, ANC Secretary General Gwede Mantashe said Zuma’s controversies, especially the scandal over his private residence, may have affected support for the ANC.

"They are factors, but they are not the sole factors that are costing us,” said Mantashe.

What is next for Zuma?

The ANC constitution allows for a temporary replacement of the party’s president in case of an emergency, such as death or incapacity. Corruption charges or scandals are not specified.

But removing Zuma would set a bad precedent. The ANC recalled Thabo Mbeki months before his second term ended that fractured the party.

The ANC’s rules dictate that top leaders can only be appointed or removed after a vote by its highest decision-making body, the National Executive Committee (NEC). The next party election, which occurs once in five years, is only scheduled for December 2017. It might choose to bring this date forward. 

The ANC will elect its party head at the next National Conference set to take place in 2017. South Africa’s Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa (L) is a potential candidate to take over the reins from Jacob Zuma (R). Photo: AP

The country’s leader might face even more backlash as groups are mobilising to take him on.

One such group is an influential organisation named Save South Africa, aimed at removing Zuma from office.

Business leaders, trade unions, civil society and faith-based bodies have joined the group and are calling for protest action and demonstrations.

“This is the journey we are prepared to walk regardless of who is with us (…) but we are confident that the majority of South Africans believe in what we are standing for,” the founder of the Save South Africa campaign, Sipho Pityana said.

But despite calls for his resignation, Zuma may well remain president of the country until the next national election in 2019.

If he is charged with over 700 counts of corruption, though, he will become the first sitting president in the country’s history to be prosecuted.

AUTHOR: Mishka Daries

TRTWorld and agencies