The Zuma Saga and the postcolonial reckoning of South Africa

Saturday February 17 2018

Former post-apartheid South Africa presidents:

Former post-apartheid South Africa presidents: from left, Jacob Zuma, the late Nelson Mandela and Thabo Mbeki. ANC has been forced to reckon with its slide into ignominy, from the proud party of Mandela into the despised cabal of Zuma. PHOTO| AFP 

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A political earthquake that was unthinkable a few months ago finally consumed South Africa's President Jacob Zuma.

He had survived years of outrageous scandals and increasingly deafening calls for his resignation that would have sunk a less wily politician.

The last days of the Zuma presidency were characterised by nerve-wrecking intrigue, impatience, anxiety, and great anticipation. Hours before his resignation, the embattled president gave a rambling and defiant speech claiming victimhood and bewilderment at his fate.

But faced by the extraordinary resolve of the African National Congress (ANC), a party he led for a decade and that had long shielded him from accountability, President Zuma resigned on February 14 rather than face a no-confidence vote the next day.

His proverbial nine lives finally ran out as he faced his ninth vote of no-confidence that he was destined to lose. It was a wildly welcomed Valentine’s Day gift to the troubled Rainbow Nation. His humiliating rendezvous with history marked a befitting end to a treacherous leader who had robbed South Africa of the storied heroism of its protracted anti-apartheid struggle.

With his legendary corruption, Zuma was the anti-Mandela, the canonised founding president of democratic South Africa, who bestrode the world stage as a moral colossus. He was also the anti-Mbeki, the cerebral architect of the post-apartheid government.

Whereas President Nelson Mandela benevolently left power after one term, President Thabo Mbeki was ignominiously ousted before the end of his second term.

President Mbeki lost to the forces loyal to his former deputy, Jacob Zuma, who he had fired in 2005 over corruption allegations.

Yet, it should not be forgotten that it was Mbeki who elevated Zuma from the backwaters of provincial leadership in KwaZulu-Natal to national prominence as his deputy.

Like many insecure or calculating African leaders, Mbeki picked an incompetent side kick for bringing his ethnic and factional base, who he underestimated but later came to bite him and wreck the beloved country.

Zuma's reputation

In an ironical twist of fate, ten years after Mbeki's ouster the chickens came home to roost for Zuma himself. Unlike Mbeki who readily accepted to resign despite his misgivings, Zuma sought to cling to power. Consequently, Mbeki left with his reputation intact, while Zuma’s is in tatters.

Under President Zuma, South Africa lost its proud halo as a much beloved and promising post-liberation society and descended into an ordinary postcolonial African state.

The myth of South African exceptionalism, deeply etched in the imaginaries of both apartheid and democratic South Africa, finally burst. Zuma exhibited all the unsavoury characteristics of Africa’s notorious Big Men: patrimonialism, paranoia, profligacy, populism and pettiness.

The litany of his scandals was depressingly long: there was the shady arms deal of the late 1990s, the disgrace of the rape case in 2006, the larceny of Nkandla, and the destructive state capture of Guptgate.

Zuma cultivated criminal patronage networks, oversaw the debasement of state institutions, eroded the integrity of public life and trust in politics, and his deeply embarrassing personal and political behaviour robbed the country and its citizens of their hard won dignity.

And he left behind a dismal economic record: 27.7 per cent unemployment; the country’s credit rating downgraded to junk status by all the major agencies; the budget deficit had ballooned to 4.3 per cent of GDP, the highest since 2009; the rate of economic growth remained anaemic falling from 3.1 per cent in 2008 to a projected 0.7 per cent in 2017.

Twenty-four years after the end of apartheid ten per cent of the population, predominantly white, still control 90 per cent of the economy.


In the meantime, inequality deepened, although its racial edges were slowly blunted by the expansion of the black middle class.

According to a survey of 154 countries by the World Bank, South Africa enjoys the dubious distinction of having the worst Gini coefficient (0.63). It could be argued that the Zuma saga is part of a much larger story.

It reflects the challenges of redressing massive historic inequalities by a ruling coalition transitioning from a protracted liberation struggle led by a new political class seeking to anchor its political prowess on the levers of economic power. As in other postcolonial societies, the state becomes a key instrument of accumulation for the political class and aspiring national bourgeoisie.

The political class incubated out of African nationalism was not the first in South Africa to travel this road. The original robber barons of South Africa go back to Cecil John Rhodes, the mining magnate and Prime Minister of the Cape Colony, who helped to engineer the South African War of 1899-1902 to seize the goldfields of the Transvaal.

In turn, the Afrikaner nationalists, who lost the war that led to the formation of South Africa in 1910, inherited the political kingdom of settler colonialism. They spent the next several decades turning political power into economic power through the affirmative action of racial segregation and expansion of state capital through the creation of state enterprises and discriminatory support for Afrikaner business interests.

This culminated with the creation of apartheid in 1948, through which South Africa’s brutal regime of racial capitalism and the fortunes of the Afrikaner bourgeoisie were consolidated.

For the new political class that emerged out of the liberation struggle, access to state power offered immense opportunities for personal and collective accumulation.

As I argued in an essay commemorating Nelson Mandela’s life following his death in December 2013, “Mandela’s Long Walk with African History”, South Africa’s protracted liberation struggle followed the contours of nationalist struggles across the continent.

Following the demise of apartheid in 1994 the country was destined to traverse the well-trodden path of postcolonial Africa, notwithstanding the illusions of South African exceptionalism spawned by settler colonial racism, that South Africa was an outpost of European civilisation in darkest Africa.


The liberation movement in South Africa sought to achieve the five historic and humanistic goals of African nationalism: decolonisation, nation-building, development, democracy, and regional integration.

The pursuit of these goals was conditioned and compromised by the complex, changing, and contradictory legacies and intersections of the neo-colonial order with colonialism, imperialism, and globalisation.

Like many of Africa’s founding presidents, Mandela’s long and large life spanned much of South Africa’s existence as a nation, traversed the various phases of the country's nationalist movement, and embodied the trajectories of postcolonial Africa.

In the essay mentioned above, I pointed out that the lateness of South Africa’s decolonisation helped compress the sequentiality, as it turned out for the early independent states, of the five objectives of African nationalism.

While the latter achieved decolonisation, they struggled hard to build unified nations out of the territorial contraptions of colonialism, which enjoyed statehood without nationhood. They came to independence in an era when development, democracy, and regional integration were compromised by weak national bourgeoisies, relatively small middle classes, and the Cold War machinations of the two superpowers, the United States and the former Soviet Union. 

Mandela’s South Africa benefited from both the positive and negative experiences of postcolonial Africa, the existence of a highly organised and vociferous civil society, and the end of the Cold War, which gave ample space for the growth of democratic governance and the rule of law.

But the new post-apartheid state was held hostage to the dictates of the negotiated settlement between the ANC and the apartheid regime arising out of the strategic stalemate between the two sides—by 1990 South Africa had become ungovernable, but the apartheid state was not vanquished as happened in Angola and Mozambique.

This, combined with the global triumph of neo-liberalism in the post-Cold War era, guaranteed the powerful interests of capital in general and the white bourgeoisie in particular against any serious economic restructuring despite the great expectations of the masses and the ambitions of successive development plans by the new government from the ‘Reconstruction and Development Programme' to 'Growth Employment and Redistribution’ to the ‘Accelerated and Shared Growth Initiative.’

Economic growth

To be sure, the post-apartheid state achieved much faster growth than the apartheid regime ever did. The country witnessed massive expansion of the black middle class and the ANC government fostered the growth of a black bourgeoisie through the Black Economic Empowerment Programme much as the apartheid regime before it had cultivated the Afrikaner bourgeoisie through apartheid affirmative action.

There was also some reduction in poverty, although huge challenges remained in terms of high levels of unemployment and deepening inequality. Interestingly, as much of the continent once deemed as ‘hopeless’ turned into a ‘rising Africa’, South Africa lagged behind in terms of rates of economic growth.

In part this reflected the lingering structural deformities of the apartheid economy in which the peasantry was virtual destroyed, the labour absorptive capacity of the economy remained limited by its high cost structures, and the country suffered from relatively low levels of skill formation for an economy of its size because of the apartheid legacy of poor black education.

Before long, South Africa was overtaken by Nigeria as Africa's largest economy. Currently, South Africa ranks third behind Nigeria and Egypt. The continent’s rapid growth, reminiscent of the immediate post-independence years, rekindled hopes for the establishment of democratic developmental states that might realise the remaining goals of African nationalism.

Rhetoric of reconciliation

The compromised decolonisation of South Africa, also as elsewhere on the continent, was sanctified by the rhetoric of reconciliation, which was a staple among many African founding presidents in the immediate post-independence years.

President Jomo Kenyatta of Kenya used to preach reconciliation, urging Kenyans to forgive but not forget the ills of the past as a way of keeping the European settlers and building his nation fractured by the racial and ethnic divisions of colonialism.

Even Zimbabwe’s President Robert Mugabe in the euphoric early days after independence urged reconciliation between white and black Zimbabweans before domestic political challenges forced him to refurbish his revolutionary credentials by adopting radical land reform and rhetoric. 

Reconciliation was such a powerful motif in the political discourses of transition to independence among some African leaders because of the imperatives of nation building, the second goal of African nationalism.

It was also a rhetorical response to the irrational and self-serving fears of imperial racism that since Africans were supposedly eternal wards of whites and incapable of ruling themselves, independence would unleash the atavistic violence of ‘intertribal warfare’ from which colonialism had saved the benighted continent, and in the post-settler colonies, the retributive cataclysm of white massacres.

Instead of comprehensive accountability for apartheid and its normative institutional violence, which engendered ‘crimes against humanity’, post-apartheid South Africa pursued ‘truth and reconciliation’ that individualised both the victims and perpetrators and shifted the logic of crime and punishment of the Nuremberg Trials for the logic of crime and confession, justified tendentiously in the name of ‘Ubuntu.’ 

Presidents Mandela and Mbeki came to embody the limits of South Africa’s neo-liberal capitalist transition, for a party steeped in the promissory rhetoric and aspirations of profound socioeconomic transformation embedded in African nationalism and socialist ideology.

Despite economic growth, the expansion of the black middle class, and emergence of a black bourgeoisie from the largess of Black Economic Empowerment policy, poverty and unemployment remained entrenched for the majority of black South Africans.

President Mbeki bore the brunt of the growing disaffection, as President Mandela withdrew from public life into the rarefied existence of a sanitised global icon for a world bereft of great leaders of high moral stature and dignity.

To be sure, his critics who became louder towards the end of his life did not spare President Mandela of his failures of commission and omission in transforming South Africa. They accused him of having failed to dismantle the South African apartheid economy that left millions of black people especially the unemployed youth in grinding poverty.

Reconciliation, they argued, rescued whites from seriously reckoning with apartheid's past and its legacies and deprived blacks of restitution.

‘People’s president’

This is the context in which President Mbeki’s 'recall' by an increasingly disenchanted ANC alliance occurred in September 2008, about nine months before the end of his second term.

They had lost faith in him despite the growth of the economy at an average annual rate of 4.5 per cent, expansion of the black middle class, his continental leadership as the proponent of the African Renaissance, architect of NEPAD, and a key player in the transition from the Organisation of African Unity to the African Union.

His vociferous opponents found his apparent elitism and aloof intellectualism unappealing, and his HIV/AIDS denialism appalling. They gravitated to his more flamboyant, populist, and ill-educated deputy who he had dismissed several years earlier. Jacob Zuma was hailed as the ‘people’s president,’ who would bring the fruits of Uhuru to the impoverished and expectant masses.

Thus, for many President Mbeki's ouster was a cause for celebration, a tribute to party democracy and a harbinger of better days for the masses who had not yet seen the fruits of uhuru.

In short, great hopes were pinned on the Zuma presidency by radicals in the ruling tripartite alliance of the ANC, the South African Communist Party, and Congress of South African Trade Unions.

Many local newspapers and elite opinion were critical of Mbeki’s removal. They saw it as a sign that the once mighty liberation party had lost its soul under the strains of governing, that it marked the beginning of South Africa's descent into dangerous postcolonial populism.

History was to prove the sceptics right. In fact, before long some of President Zuma’s loudest supporters lost faith with his kleptocratic regime. They included the controversial Julius Malema, who served as President of the ANC Youth League from 2008 to 2012, and Zwelinzima Vavi, former General-Secretary of COSATU from 1999 to 2015.

Both became bitter critics of President Zuma’s government. Malema went on to form the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) following his expulsion from the ANC.

Slumber of complicity

The events surrounding President Mbeki's ouster pointed to the fracturing of the ANC alliance, the sharpening of ideological dissensions within the party that could no longer be papered over by the uniting heroism of the liberation struggle and the ANC's fabled love of unity.

As elsewhere in postcolonial Africa, South Africa was undergoing the complex and challenging transition from liberation politics to postcolonial governance. 

South Africa is of course not doomed to follow the familiar and tortuous postcolonial path of other African states. As I wrote on September 19, 2008 a day after President Mbeki’s ouster in an essay entitled, “The Fall of Thabo Mbeki: Whither South Africa?” “The ANC may rue the day they rolled this dangerous political dice and precedent.”

High levels of corruption compounded President Zuma’s poor record of performance. The ANC began to wake up from its slumber of complicity as its electoral appeal began to plummet.

In the General Election of 2014 it won 62.15 per cent of the vote compared to 65.90 per cent in 2009, which translated into a loss of 15 seats in the 400 member-seat National Assembly.

The real shocker came with the municipal elections of August 2016, which the ANC won with 53.9 per cent of the vote, the lowest level since 1994. The two major opposition parties, the Democratic Alliance and EFF garnered 26.9 per cent and 8.2 per cent, respectively.

The opposition parties seized control of three major metropolitan areas, namely, Nelson Mandela Bay, Tswane, and Johannesburg. This was a severe rebuke to a party, which seemed poised to shed its urban roots and identity into a rural party.

The rising political cost of continued support for the reviled Zuma presidency increasingly became apparent to the ANC and its allies. Attempts by the increasingly beleaguered president to engineer dynastic succession through the candidacy of his ex-wife, Dr Nkosazana Dlamini Zuma, ruffled more ANC feathers.

Despite her impressive credentials as an accomplished politician and a long-serving member of the Cabinet under all South African presidents, and chairperson of the African Union Commission, she went to narrow defeat by Cyril Ramaphosa at the ANC’s 54th National Conference in December 2017.

Two months later, President Zuma finally fell from power, convulsed by the emboldened forces of opposition to his rule in the party he had served for decades and that had long protected him from his litany of transgressions.

The electoral system

President Zuma survived for so long because of the structure of the South African electoral system. It is based on closed-party-list proportional representation, in which the electorate votes for a party rather than an individual candidate.

Parliamentary seats are apportioned to each party based on its proportion of the popular vote. Each party then allocates seats to a preselected list of candidates. Under such a system, members of parliament are less beholden to voters than toeing the party line. This gives the party leadership including the president enormous powers of control.

But it also means that changes in party leadership quickly translate into loss of political power for the unsuccessful faction and its leaders in often fiercely contested party elections.

In such systems, the presidency of the leading party determines the presidency of the country because it is parliament that elects the president. This is why the ANC’s ‘recall’ is such a powerful weapon because failure to heed it can lead to a parliamentary vote of no-confidence.

This is what happened in South Africa’s dominant party system in 2008 and 2018 with the sudden ouster of Presidents Mbeki and Zuma. The latter was threatened with the prospect of a vote of no-confidence. 

Thus, Zuma survived for so long because of the electoral and party system, but was ousted because of South Africa's vibrant political culture as manifested in the values, beliefs, orientations, and aspirations of the demos.

'Cyril Spring'

As is often the case with moments of major political change, the investment in the new leader as the saviour of the nation tends to be excessive. Needless to say, President Ramaphosa has inherited daunting challenges and great expectations.

Some place stock in the fact that he was President Mandela’s preferred successor; that he is a multi-millionaire business tycoon less likely to be corrupt (he is reportedly worth about half a billion dollars) and will be better at managing the economy than his predecessors; that as a former trade union leader he understands the working class; that as a skilful negotiator he will navigate through the treacherous quicksands of competing interests. Some even talk of a “Cyril Spring.”

But others point to the skeletons in the new President’s closet. There is his unsavoury role in the Marikana massacre in 2012 for which he later apologised and was absolved by an official inquiry.

President Ramaphosa was then a director of Lonmin, the platinum mining company, where a violent police response to the miners’ strike left 34 workers dead and scores injured in one of the worst massacres in recent South African history.

President Ramaphosa will be no miracle worker in rescuing South Africa from its structural deformities of uncompetitive corporate monopolies, high unemployment and low skills, deep inequalities and widespread poverty, and pervasive corruption.

But he cannot do worse than President Zuma, but that is a low bar.

Although salvaging the country and its economy from the enormous challenges left by the Zuma presidency is likely to take time, his rise underscores the resilience of South African democracy, the stubborn independence of its judiciary, the indefatigability of its expansive and noisy civil society that brought President Zuma to heel and forced the ANC to reckon with its slide into ignominy, from the proud party of Mandela into the despised cabal of Zuma.

Thus Ramaphosa is part of the desperate rebranding of the ANC ahead of the 2019 General Election. The ANC’s political renewal is of course possible, but not guaranteed. What is more certain is the fact that South African society has been reinvigorated, its democratic and developmental hopes given a fresh start.

South Africa after the wreckage of the ‘Zunami’ has also recovered some of its lost shine as a political beacon in an increasingly illiberal world of dangerous populisms.

The ANC's resolve to oust President Zuma, notwithstanding its belatedness, is unimaginable in the Republican Party in the United States that has sold its soul to an unprincipled, bombastic, and deceitful huckster called Donald Trump.

It is also unlikely in many African countries held hostage by sleazy dictators who routinely abolish term limits, rig elections, and loot their nations meagre resources.

The transition in South Africa, following soon after the demise of the Mugabe dictatorship in Zimbabwe, and the apparent dismantling of the Santos kleptocratic dynasty in Angola, seems to suggest the possible resurgence of the winds of democratic change in southern Africa.

One hopes such winds do not represent passing clouds destined to dissipate swiftly and that they will spread to the rest of the region and the continent. As we say in southern Africa, the struggle indeed continues.

Paul Tiyambe Zeleza is the Vice Chancellor at United States International University - Africa.