Why Zuma might be the best thing to have happened to SA
BOOK EXTRACT: ‘Democracy Works: Rewiring Politics to Africa’s Advantage’
Extract from Democracy Works: Rewiring Politics to Africa’s Advantage by Greg Mills, Olusegun Obasanjo, Jeffrey Herbst and Tendai Biti published by Picador (R290).
South Africa: Self-correcting democracy
The vast majority of countries in Africa were not born democratic and did not begin their economic transformation so early in their history. Instead, most followed a more tortuous path that usually included retrograde movements due to poor policies. One of the virtues of democratic governments is that they offer the potential to halt and reverse decline as the voters’ voice is heard and institutions react to dysfunctional practices.
A powerful example of self-correction is offered by South Africa, which suffered enormously from ‘state capture’ under Jacob Zuma, but whose institutions were able to wrest power from strong vested interests. South Africa demonstrates, in particular, that while democracies can suffer from corruption, they have avenues to resolve dysfunctional politics that are not open to authoritarian regimes.
South Africa was part of the post-Cold War world turned from dictatorships to democracies between 1990 and 2005. Yet, by the end of 2017 it was faltering. A generation on from the end of apartheid, with the country marching towards its fifth election, it appeared to be democratic only in name since the capture of the state by a cabal was seemingly nearly complete.
South Africa’s dramatic downward spiral began with the election of Jacob Zuma as president in 2009. Zuma had had 783 criminal charges pending and had been dismissed as deputy president in 2005 by President Thabo Mbeki due to concerns that he was corrupt.
Eight years after achieving ultimate power, Zuma’s plans for state capture had seemingly succeeded. A master of manoeuvre, deception and control, he substantially eroded the integrity of state institutions through political appointments and with the help of his friends. As befitted a KGB-trained head of the intelligence department of the African National Congress (ANC) in exile, he quickly captured key aspects of the security sector, extending its control into the heart of parliament and its tentacles into public life.
Enemies were fabricated, deflecting attention from the process of state capture. The targets shifted from ‘counter-revolutionary’ forces, who were then succeeded by ‘white monopoly capitalists’, a convenient political caricature of powerful white industrialists and interests seeking apparently to keep black South Africans from benefiting from and taking part in the mainstream economy. In response, new, more radical legislation was promulgated around mining, black indigenisation and land reform.
While such slogans offered the pretext for accelerated radical economic transformation, they were the guise for making significant money through public procurement and to distribute public funds to the faithful.
By 2016, the state itself revealed that 40% of its R600 billion budget in goods and services was being lost to fraud and inflated expenditure. Perhaps as much as R100 billion was funnelled directly into corrupt purposes. These findings were announced amid increasing concerns about the budget, with lower tax collection, higher tax rates, and greater and more expensive borrowing on international markets.
In 2014, at the start of Zuma’s second term, the public protector reported on the upgrades at the president’s private residence at Nkandla. The report found that President Zuma was required to pay back a reasonable portion of the money spent installing non-security upgrades at his residence. A cattle kraal, chicken run, swimming pool, visitors’ centre and amphitheatre were built at public expense at Nkandla, justified as a security upgrade. On appeal, the full bench of the Constitutional Court found in March 2016 that the president should pay back the money. It also found that the National Assembly’s resolution exonerating the president from liability was inconsistent with the constitution and unlawful, and that the president had failed to ‘uphold, defend and respect’ the constitution.
In September 2016, six months later, it was confirmed that President Zuma paid back the R7.8 million he owed for these upgrades.
These judgments were initially ignored by Zuma and he seemed unaware of the humiliation. He appeared similarly nonplussed, amused even, at the fisticuffs that erupted in parliament during the State of the Nation address in February 2015, and routinely thereafter.
While the president may have been immune to the courts and parliament, the markets were more sensitive. An important moment was the appointment of Des van Rooyen as finance minister for four days in December 2015, which wiped R500 billion ($33 billion) off South African assets, including R95 billion ($6.3 billion) off the value of the state pension plan alone as the rand plunged to record lows.
Zuma claimed, ‘Des Rooyen is my comrade, MK [Umkhonto we Sizwe – the ANC’s military wing] for that matter, he’s atrained finance and economic comrade and more qualified than any minister I have ever appointed in the finance issue.’ Still, the president eventually backtracked, replacing Van Rooyen with Pravin Gordhan, a respected former finance minister. The rand staged a partial recovery.
Despite the president’s protestations, Van Rooyen was a frequent visitor to Saxonwold, Johannesburg, home of the notorious Gupta family, who enjoyed a close relationship with the president and his family. The Guptas had remained firmly anchored to Zuma when he had been ‘released’ from his position in July 2005. The family moved from computers into mining and media with Zuma’s accession to the presidency, establishing the New Age newspaper and ANN7 television channel in 2010. Government contracts for transport and coal fed their burgeoning empire, drawing in international names including McKinsey, EOH, SAP, and Bain & Co., along with Bell Pottinger, the now-defunct London-based public relations firm.
Zuma’s regime was described privately by some government ministers as a ‘mafia’, one that was poisoning South Africa’s politics and economy.
The extent of the rot was indicated by the takeover of the Waterkloof Air Force base outside Pretoria in April 2013 for the guests to be flown to the wedding of the Gupta brothers’ niece.
Van Rooyen’s costly appointment seemed to have occurred simply because of President Zuma’s frustration with the Treasury’s reluctance to endorse a trillion rand nuclear power station deal with Russia, for which it was alleged large kickbacks were to be paid. The deputy finance minister, Mcebisi Jonas, had been appointed in the expectation that he was a pliant figure. However, when he turned out to be the opposite, it was decided that his boss, Nhlanhla Nene, had to be shifted to make way for Van Rooyen, the ‘weekend special’ as he became known on account of the duration of his finance ministerial tenure.
Jonas publicly confirmed in March 2016 that he had been offered Nene’s post by the Gupta family in exchange for R600m. Spurious charges were brought against Jonas’ boss, Minister Gordhan, both as a means of soaking up his time and energy and of tarnishing his good name. Then, in October 2016, Gordhan revealed in a court affidavit that R6.8bn (then $490m) in payments made by the Gupta brothers and companies they controlled had been reported to authorities as suspicious since 2012.
Another important moment was the November 2016 report of the public protector into state capture. In 355 pages, Advocate Thuli Madonsela and her team outlined just how much control the Gupta family had over South Africa’s resources and the state itself. It was little surprise when President Zuma, as well as two ministers implicated in the report, went to court to stop its release. The report offered proof that the president sanctioned the use of state companies for personal enrichment.
There was also a legion of courageous civil society activists, including Sipho Pityana who launched into Zuma at the August 2016 funeral of ANC stalwart Makhenkesi Stofile, and in so doing instigated a campaign to ‘Save SA’ from President Zuma, whom he called the ‘champion of corruption’. In response, the government went out of its way to condemn non-governmental organisations (NGOs) who, in the words of Zuma’s state security minister, David Mahlobo, were working ‘to destabilise the state’. As he put it, ‘there are those who are used as NGOs, but they are not. They are just security agents that are being used for covert operations.’
Despite the accusations, the president rode out the storm. In the months immediately following the report’s release, at least three ministers challenged him in the inner sanctum of the ANC, the 100-strong National Executive Committee, though he was able to retain power. Then, in March 2017, Zuma fired the two ministers in the Treasury who had been the greatest thorns in his side, Gordhan and his deputy, Jonas. They themselves only heard of this on the television news, and the president did not speak to them about it before or after.
South Africa seemed desperate. The economy was dipping into recession. Investors were turning their backs. Public services were faltering. State capture seemed nearly complete, with just the courts and constitution to go.
However, the public was not all fooled. Zuma had paid a heavy price at the polls, especially in the August 2016 local government elections, losing control of three major cities – Tshwane, Port Elizabeth and Johannesburg – to the official opposition, the Democratic Alliance. At the same time, some public figures and investigative reporters and writers found their voice in bravely working to expose state capture.
Zuma’s fortunes started to unravel with the release of hundreds of thousands of e-mails from the Guptas in May 2017. Brought to light by the Centre for Investigative Journalism, amaBhungane, in collaboration with the Daily Maverick, the e-mails showed the extent of the Gupta family’s control over cabinet ministers, state-owned companies and the South African Revenue Service and their involvement in government contracts.
It was no longer possible to deny the details of state capture, or its agents.
Next, Zuma’s candidate for the December 2018 ANC elective conference, his former wife and once head of the African Union Commission, Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, lost to his arch-rival Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa by a margin of just 179 votes in over 5 700. Within two months, Zuma was out of a job and Ramaphosa had become president, promising ‘ethical behaviour and ethical leadership’ in signalling a break with the Zuma era’s years of economic decline and rampant corruption.
Zuma was evicted ultimately because enough of his own party turned against him. But the ANC acted only when it became abundantly clear that it was risking a calamitous showing at the polls in 2019 in the face of mounting civil society pressure through media investigations and revelations, and by the courts holding firm. It was the full democratic package that worked to exert pressure on the party. There were some extremely brave individuals in the public sector – notably Madonsela, Gordhan and Jonas – who acted as role models around which civil society could mobilise.
But they were all able to operate because at South Africa’s core was a commitment to constitutional democracy. As Helen Zille, the long-time leader of South Africa’s liberal opposition and premier of the Western Cape, reminds us: ‘[Jacob Zuma] was evicted because democracy is about checks and balances on power. The opposition does not get the credit for this, but without the role of parliament and these checks and balances, those who claim the credit among civil society or even in the ANC itself would not have the space in which to operate.’
The greatest asset in the struggle against state capture was possibly President Zuma himself. The irony is that Zuma’s actions, instead of driving the country towards populist authoritarianism, energised civil society and provoked public support for constitutionalism, the courts and the rule of law. As Anthony Butler noted at the time, ‘one day the country may look back on this President [Zuma] as democracy’s accidental saviour’.