After repeated accusations of corruption Jacob Zuma, the 4th President of South Africa, left the office in February 2018 after ten years of service as the leader of the African National Congress. With the upcoming election in 2019 questions are now being raised to as how much the once revered “People’s President” has damaged the public credibility of South African democracy and the legacy of Nelson Mandela’s party.
The rise of an unlikely star
First engaging himself in the ANC as a teenager, Zuma became an active member of the military wing of the party, founded in 1961 as a reaction to the Sharpeville massacre with the aim to promote physical resistance towards the South African government. Arrested for this illegal activity in 1962, Zuma came to spend almost a decade behind bars alongside fellow party leader Nelson Mandela and other notable ANC figures. Continuing his work after his release Zuma chose to go into exile in 1975 with the target of organizing the party from abroad.
Once there, he met the likes of Thabo Mbeki who would go on to become the 2nd President of South Africa. With the easing of tensions between ANC and the apartheid government in the early 90s, Zuma returned to his home country to participate as a prominent figure in the negotiations to end the white minority apartheid rule. Arguing for a peaceful solution through diplomatic means he quickly earned the trust of the public and the party, resulting in his appointment as Vice President of South Africa under President Thabo Mbeki.
In 2005, rumours around Zuma’s unethical style of governance started to dominate the media as the South African businessman Schabir Shaik was sentenced for having paid bribes to Zuma for several years. The collision of interest could not be overlooked by president Mbeki who fired his vice president shortly after.
However despite new corruption charges and an alleged rape charge in 2006, Zuma managed to maintain his role within the ANC party resulting in him being elected as its leader in 2007. His simple upbringing, charisma and traditional family values were viewed by the public as virtues which his predecessor lacked and so in 2009 Jacob Zuma was elected President of South Africa.
In many regards his decisions and policy as president was a story of success, focusing on decreasing rural poverty, promoting higher education and reducing the deaths due to HIV/AIDS. Still the development rate of the South African economy has declined for the last ten years, unemployment in the country is nearing the 30-percentage mark and big bureaucracy is swallowing billions more compared to those in nations of similar size.
For Zuma personally it would all come down to the corruption rumours still haunting his political persona. With the passing of Nelson Mandela in 2013 Zuma suddenly found himself being booed out by crowd accusing him of soiling “Madiba’s” legacy with corruption and personal benefits before the common good of the public. Except from private infidelity which led to public excuses the President still had the support of his party and managed to get re-elected in 2014.
After repeatedly having denied any corruption the President was prosecuted in 2016 for having taken use of millions of state benefits in the construction of his own luxury mansion. His sentence to pay back all the non-security related money to the central bank was the start of a two year downfall for the 4th President of South Africa. In late 2016 the first collective report of South African corruption “State capture” was published pointing out Zuma as a central figure in several constitution breaking relationships. Even though three votes of confidence followed in the parliament the President still had the majority of his party behind him.
However as time went on the division within the ANC grew deeper forcing either a public discharge or an internal one. Zuma agreed on the latter, resigning from the leadership of the ANC in December 2017 and the office of presidency in February 2018. As if the fog then disappeared, a prosecution concerning a 2 billion dollar investment in arms began with allegations of fraud, money laundering and racketeering. The most controversial presidency in the history of South Africa has become an even more controversial ex-presidency as accusations and allegations now are being dealt with by the judiciary institutions.
A haunting past
So what does the turbulent period of Jacob Zuma mean for the future of South Africa? The new president Cyril Ramaphosa has described the past years as “a dark period” and that “the shine that had been tarnished is coming back and people are realising this. We are in a new period now – we are no longer in a period where we were just sliding downwards.” He has made clear that he intends to clean up the corruption within the ANC and remove those high officials who face true accusations of corruption.
Supporting the President’s firm attitude stands the Mandela foundation, stressing the need to not only hold Jacob Zuma responsible but also redirecting the country to the democratic objectives that the new state was founded on in the 90s. As the presidential election of 2019 is getting closer, the ANC has a great task of restoring its’ public credibility as well as providing citizens with potent reforms. The emotional capital of Madiba and the road to racial liberation is still a strong lever in the eyes of the public, but it could also (which the last ten years have proven), just be a blessing to not change policy nor the persons responsible for it. South Africa has reached a crossroad and it must decide whether it wants the legacy of Jacob Zuma to be part of the past or a part of further future policy.