South African government on a knife edge

Gedleyihlekisa: Zuma’s Zulu name means “One who smiles while grinding his enemies.” © Getty

Corrupt, inept, unethical: South Africa’s President Jacob Zuma has a bad reputation. Today, he faces a vote of no confidence. What does the nation’s future look like without him?

Jacob Zuma has a knack for getting out of tight spots — hence his nickname, “the Houdini of South African politics”. But now the president of the troubled nation is confronted by one of his toughest tests yet.

Dogged by allegations of corruption and mismanagement, Zuma faces a vote of no confidence in South Africa’s parliament. The motion was brought by opposition parties, who say that the president is not fit to govern. He has survived five such challenges before, and will probably win today’s vote too. Yet a victory will not silence the growing criticism of his rule.

Zuma is no stranger to controversy. Raised in poverty, he became active in the military wing of the African National Congress (ANC), a party that fought the apartheid system of racial segregation. This landed him 10 years’ imprisonment alongside Nelson Mandela.

When he became president in 2009, his humble upbringing and long experience with the ANC — which has ruled the nation since the end of apartheid — counted in his favour. He was hailed as “the people’s president”.

But that label has faded. On Zuma’s watch, state funds have been diverted from the poor to pay for wasteful infrastructure projects, or to line politicians’ pockets. The president’s reputation suffered when it was revealed that he spent millions of government dollars on renovating his home. He has also been tarnished by sexual scandals.

Meanwhile, the average citizen is having a hard time. Growth has plummeted since 2011 and unemployment is high. South Africa is now the most unequal nation in the world. As Mandela’s ex-wife Winnie recently put it: “Something is seriously wrong in our country.”

The country is starting to fight back. The ANC did poorly in last year’s local elections. Former allies of the party are openly criticising it. April saw the biggest anti-government protests since apartheid; one million have signed a petition calling for Zuma to go.

Whatever happens today, Zuma is due to step down as president in 2019. Can South Africa recover from the damage he has done?

Going south

Unlikely, say pessimists. Zuma has helped create a kleptocracy, in which an elite of politicians and businessmen maintain total power and govern in their own interest. History shows that once a system like this has been set up, it is very hard to dismantle. Zuma will install his preferred successor and business will continue as usual.

Cheer up, reply optimists. For all its problems, South Africa is a more or less functioning democracy. Its courts are relatively independent and its citizens are powerful — after all, they brought down apartheid. They know Zuma is a crook. As recent events show, they will not stand for this much longer.

You Decide

  1. Would you like to visit South Africa? Why (not)?
  2. Is South Africa unique among African nations?


  1. As a class, come up with a list of ten qualities which you think all politicians should have.
  2. In groups, draw up a timeline of South African history since 1990, marking on it the 10 most important events.

Some People Say...

“If you want to make peace with your enemy, you have to work with your enemy.”

— Nelson Mandela

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
If Zuma survives today’s vote, he is due to stand down as ANC leader in December, and as president in 2019. If the vote goes against him, he must resign immediately and the ANC has 30 days to pick a new leader and president. If it fails to do so, an early general election will be called; opposition parties, which have never been in power, could well make big gains.
What do we not know?
Which way today’s vote will go. The ANC holds 249 of the parliament’s 400 seats, so at least 50 would have to vote against their president for him to lose. This is unlikely, not least because the party has a strong tradition of loyalty to the leader. However, the fact that they are voting in secret may encourage more to turn against Zuma, as they will not have to fear punishment from him.

Word Watch

1874–1926. An American magician whose ability to escape from all kinds of bonds earned him global fame.
Under this system, South Africa’s white minority had complete political power and the rights of the country’s black population were extremely limited . The word means “separateness” in the local Afrikaans language, and is now used to refer to other systems of segregation.
Counted in his favour
Since apartheid, much of the ANC’s popularity has rested on its successful fight against white rule. Its politicians still sometimes talk of politics in apartheid terms: for example, Zuma accuses his critics of practising “white monopoly capitalism”.
Politicians’ pockets
Before becoming president, Zuma faced a whopping 783 corruption charges. These were dropped, but last year a court ruled that they could be reinstated.
Sexual scandals
In 2005, Zuma was acquitted of rape in a highly publicised trial.
According to the Gini index, which measures how evenly income is distributed among a nation’s citizens.
A nation whose resources are stolen by its rulers.

PDF Download

Please click on "Print view" at the top of the page to see a print friendly version of the article.