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South Africa's political crisis: an expert explains why it's happening and what it means

(Mujahid Safodien/AFP/Getty Images)

South Africa is facing its most severe political crisis since the fall of apartheid.

On the surface, this crisis is about corruption. Starting in 2009, South Africa spent more than $16 million of public funds to renovate Nkandla, President Jacob Zuma's private residence. South Africa’s constitutional court ruled on April 3 that Zuma had violated the constitution by ignoring an order to repay the money, and criticized parliament for failing to hold Zuma to his obligations.

The main opposition parties pressed for impeachment, arguing that Zuma’s corruption and his violation of the country’s constitution had rendered him unfit for office. South Africans rallied in protests. And a host of senior political figures, including five of the top six leaders of Zuma's political party, have called on him to resign.

Thus far Zuma has refused, and the rank and file of his party still backs him, allowing him to survive a parliamentary impeachment vote last week. But the crisis seems far from over.

As public opposition to Zuma grows, his party’s loyalty seems less assured. And if it falters, that could spell the end not only of Zuma’s presidency but of the unity of his party, the African National Congress (ANC), which has ruled South Africa since the end of apartheid.

This is much more than a corruption scandal. It is part of a larger struggle over what kind of nation South Africa is going to be. Will it follow the example of some of its African neighbors, where liberation parties became autocratic and corrupt single-party governments? Or will the country’s institutions and opposition parties fight back, ensuring that South Africa remains truly democratic?

To understand what this crisis tells us about South Africa, I spoke with professor William Gumede, the author of Thabo Mbeki: The Battle for the Soul of the ANC and the chair of the Democracy Works Foundation, which promotes democracy and the rule of law in South Africa. What follows is a transcript of our conversation, edited for length and clarity.

South African President Zuma
South African President Jacob Zuma.
Sean Gallup/Getty Images

Amanda Taub: What is likely to happen next? Do you think this crisis will continue? Or will Zuma be able to defuse it?

WG: It is unlikely Zuma will be able to diffuse this crisis. Today, for example, civil society groups in South Africa that are aligned to the ANC, churches, community groups and so on launched a campaign calling for Jacob Zuma to resign. Which means that while Zuma is in power, we can just have almost daily mass protest against Zuma from within the ANC itself, and within the wider society.

The opposition parties tried to impeach Zuma in parliament, but they failed. They are not going to give up. They are going to continue to agitate for Zuma's removal.

Within the ANC, they are fighting. [Because of the political crisis] they are not going to have time to govern properly; they are not going to have time to focus on reforming the economy and so on. If the economy gets worse, more and more former supporters of the ANC will start to get disillusioned, and they will start to take the anger out against Jacob Zuma.

The ANC at some point will then have to confront the issue: Will they keep on carrying Jacob Zuma, and lose more voters and supporters for the sake of Zuma?

If the ANC leaders still support him, in my sense we may see another split in the ANC [like the one in 2013 that saw former ANC youth leader Julius Malema leave to form a new opposition party]. The other alternative that if Zuma is forced out eventually, he may also form his own party outside the ANC.

Julius Malema being mobbed by a crowd of supporters
Julius Malema being mobbed by a crowd of supporters in 2012.
Photo by Lefty Shivambu/Gallo Images/Getty Images

Essentially, this is a moment of reckoning for the ANC. If they continue to support Jacob Zuma, we may see another breaking. But if they put Jacob Zuma out, Jacob Zuma may then mobilize his own independent party.

A new break might be even bigger, the biggest split in the ANC — and the ANC will lose its majority.

All of these things could have turned out so much different if the ANC had many years before cleaned up its house internally. But it has been in power; it hasn't done this self-inspection that it should have done.

AT: When you say because the ANC has been in power it hasn't done the self-inspection that it could have done, do you mean that if there had been stronger opposition parties the ANC might have been pressured to deal with these problems sooner?

WG: Yes. The problem in the past has been that the ANC became arrogant; it became complacent. It didn't listen to critics whether internal or external, because it argued, "Why should we listen? Because we got the votes."

But now we have more competition to the ANC. The Democratic Alliance, the largest opposition party, has been reinvigorated with a new black leader called Mmusi Maimane.

Secondly, there has been a new popular black political party called the Economic Freedom Fighters, which was formed by Julius Malema, who was the former president of the ANC youth league. Julius Malema used to be a very strong ally of Jacob Zuma, but now he is outside [of the ANC]. The party seems to be very attractive to young black youth, especially those who are unhappy with the ANC — who are unemployed, who are struggling.

Some of the other smaller opposition parties are also starting to get more attraction. We've finally got more competition in the system, and they are putting pressure on the ANC now.

We also have something ... let's call it non-political opposition. New, non-political opposition from union groups that split from the Congress of South African Unions, which are the alliance of the ANC. We've had a couple of unions that broke away from the ANC. Although they are not a political party, they're also a new opposition in civil society.

AT: Why did they break with the ANC?

WG: They broke with ANC because they disagreed with Jacob Zuma's leadership, all of the allegations of corruption, inefficiency, arrogance, and because Jacob Zuma's government has been unable to deliver.

AT: To take a very, very cynical view of how this kind of politics sometimes works out, you might expect a leader like Zuma to try to buy off the unions and the opposition with patronage; to try to keep Malema in by giving him more power and more patronage so that he can benefit personally, and to do the same with union leaders. But it seems like that didn't happen here.

WG: No, no. Jacob Zuma has done all of those.

Student protesters in South Africa.
(Ihsaan Haffejee/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)

AT: In that case, why didn't it work?

WG: Zuma has extended the patronage to leaders, but the problem is the members and the ordinary citizens who are actually feeling the pain. The "patronage" that they need is the patronage of effective public services, jobs, and so on. They are not getting that.

So even if the leaders get the patronage, things are not working for ordinary supporters and members. And they are starting to walk away from their own leaders.

The biggest example is the National Union of Mine Workers. That was South Africa's largest union, and it was a very important union during the anti-apartheid struggle.

That union was very close to Jacob Zuma, supporting him. Zuma managed to keep the union leaders on board through patronage. He appointed couple of former presidents of the union to the cabinet, and a former general secretary for the union to the cabinet, and so on. But the ANC government did not deliver on the economy. The mining sector contracted, and mine workers lost their jobs.

Some union members broke away and they formed a different union called AMCU, the Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union of South Africa. That union is now almost bigger than the actual National Union of Mine Workers. And the National Union of Mine Workers is not the largest union in South Africa anymore.

AT: Even though these are stories about crises and turmoil, in a lot of ways that seems like a very positive story. It suggests that these institutions in South Africa were strong enough to resist this kind of patronage and push back against Zuma's corruption. A lot of countries just don't have institutions that can do that.

WG: Yes, that's good news for us in South Africa. The democratic institutions in South Africa are now being proven under massive pressure. And they are fighting back.

Individual activists within the ANC and outside the ANC are also fighting back. Opposition is fighting back. Ordinary citizens are fighting back now. In other African countries, historically since the Second World War this has never been the case. That is why countries just collapse.

What it is saying about South Africa is that the foundations of the country's democracy were vulnerable, but as we've seen it is actually responding to the challenge.

In South Africa, we repeated some of the mistakes that other African countries made. The fact is that because the ANC was so popular, members and supporters of the ANC have been very forgiving in the way the ANC has governed. They haven't been critical enough. It's only now that they are becoming critical.

People in Zimbabwe, people in Tanzania, people in Ghana — they all made the same mistakes. There is too much leeway. When the former liberation movements and independence movements came to power, they failed in power and they became corrupt. "Oh, no, they are just making mistakes. Oh, no, they are having a difficult time. We are going to give them another chance."

Until it's too late. Until you can't reverse the problems anymore.

We in South Africa almost made the same mistakes, but fortunately for us, now it seems that people are starting to see that they better hold the leaders much more strongly accountable.

AT: Why do you think South Africa has been able to avoid those mistakes when other countries fall victim to them?

WG: Because the anti-apartheid struggle was much more diverse than other [African countries' liberation] struggles.

The liberation struggle in South Africa was fought by many different independent movements and groups, not just one like, say, [Zimbabwe's] ZANU PF, where one party was the independence party. In South Africa there was the ANC, but there were the unions, there was the Communist Party, and then there were other groups like the Pan-African Congress and the Black Consciousness Movement. There were different types of groups independent from each other.

AT: We're definitely seeing strong opposition today. But do you think there is a chance that the scandal could just die down?

WG: No, no. It's too big to die down. There has to be a resolution to the scandal. There has to be a resolution, and the resolution is either Jacob Zuma goes or he stays. If he goes, we will have a split; if he stays, we may also have a split.

But it's going to take several months. We are now in the runup to the local elections [that will be held on August 3]. Which just means from a South African point of view, and from an observer point of view, we are now entering a moment of uncertainty. It's one of the biggest uncertain periods in the post-apartheid era, and it's going to go on for quite a while.