South Africa’s “Teflon President” Jacob Zuma has brushed off an extraordinary number of corruption allegations and scandals in his eight years in office. In the ultimate test of his political survivability, his ruling African National Committee party publicly demanded his resignation in a “recall” on Tuesday.
The recall does not remove Zuma from office, but it does corner him. If he doesn’t resign, he will face a vote of no confidence in Parliament, which he will no doubt lose without his party’s support.
How did we get here?
The magnitude of corruption allegations against 75-year-old Zuma is astounding. He faces more than 780 allegations relating to a 1990s arms deal alone, and faces criticism for his links to a family of powerful businessmen, the Guptas.
But the reason his demise now seems inevitable is because his party, the African National Congress, appears to have judged that he’s too much of an electoral liability.
Under Zuma, the ANC’s popularity has plummeted. The party suffered huge losses in municipal elections in 2016. It even lost control of key areas in the party’s heartland to the opposition Democratic Alliance.
The ANC had previously supported Zuma through several periods of scandal. But with the 2019 general election looming, the ANC appears to have judged that it needs to be rid of President sooner rather than later if it is to have any hope of restoring its once-proud image with South African voters.
The ANC has led South Africa since Nelson Mandela became the country’s first black president in 1994, after the gradual end of apartheid.
Zuma often claims the ANC will “rule until Jesus comes back,” but South Africans are showing appetite for something else.
Absolute loyalty from its members has always been paramount to the success of the liberation party.
In Tuesday’s press conference announcing Zuma’s recall, ANC Secretary General Ace Magashule continued to defend the man his party was seeking to oust.
“President Zuma has not been found guilty in any court of law and when we took these decisions we did not take these decisions because comrade Zuma has done anything wrong,” he said.
Who is Jacob Zuma?
Zuma was once a wildly popular figure who was celebrated as an anti-apartheid hero in Mandela’s realm.
He was arrested by the apartheid government in 1963 and was sentenced to 10 years on Robben Island, the penal colony that also then held Mandela.
He took on official government positions as the country transitioned to democracy and he served as deputy president from 1999 to 2005.
Born in Nkandla in rural KwaZulu-Natal to a policeman and a domestic worker, Zuma joined the ANC and South African Communist Party at a young age.
He never received much of a formal education, but he emerged a cunning politician able to outsmart his political opponents.
He helped oust President Thabo Mbeki, and at the end of 2007 he beat Mbeki to become ANC leader. Zuma became president after elections in 2009 and was re-elected in 2014.
But his story is very much one of a fall from grace, and the leader has at times been the subject of ridicule in the country.
After being charged with the rape of a woman with HIV in 2005, he was mocked for saying he did not fear contracting the virus because he took a shower after sex. A court acquitted him in 2006 of rape, finding the sex to have been consensual.
In 2016, South Africa’s top court ruled that Zuma had acted unconstitutionally when he used $15 million in public funds to upgrade his private home and ordered him to repay some of the money.
Why does he keep surviving?
The ANC has tolerated Zuma’s antics for some time. Previously the party believed ousting him would be a blow to the ANC as it would hand an easy win to the opposition.
Zuma is not the first ANC member to be accused of corruption, and the party has sought to show a unified front to the South African people. It also valued and preached loyalty among party members.
Zuma has also used his stealth to stay in power. He has reshuffled his Cabinet several times to reward those loyal to him and punish those against him.
Although he has seen his popularity slide, Zuma has been one of South Africa’s most colorful and charismatic leaders, and is still popular with some South Africans, particularly in his home province of KwaZulu-Natal.