JOHANNESBURG - The curtain this week fell on one of southern Africa’s post-
colonial strongmen. South African President, Jacob Gedleyihlekisa Zuma, left his office begrudgingly late on Wednesday night, hours after the ANC joined his opponents on a multi-party crusade to eject him.
Zuma, the man who became famous for long drawn out processes against him, tried to hold on until the last minute to extract as many concessions from his ousters as possible.
He saw himself as a victim of a small cabal, while the majority of South Africans still wanted him. But South Africa had had enough of him and even his party could not wait for his resignation.
It was a palace revolt that was not too far from what happened in neighbouring Zimbabwe last November. Like Robert Mugabe, Zuma had become too much of a liability. His reckless policy-making decisions had grounded a once thriving economy. And with his fall, down the drain went the fortunes of some of the most recalcitrant ministers in South Africa’s history.
Whichever direction the wind blows in from today onwards, it is not unreasonable to predict that Mosebenzi Zwane, Lynne Brown, Faith Muthambi and Des van Rooyen will bite the dust as well. (Indeed one day when researchers of history study Zuma’s presidency, the story of Zwane, Muthambi and Van Rooyen - the three recalcitrant unknowns who rose from obscurity to occupy the central space in our body politik - will feature prominently in their theses).
Zuma’s erratic control of the economy gave rise to a battalion of unemployed youths who have very little regard for his struggle credentials. For them the immediate issues are jobs, education, health and other niceties that their counterparts the world over enjoy.
This is a seismic change that is gaining traction across the continent as millions shun the liberation nostalgia to demanding what is rightfully due to them.
Angola’s new President Joao Lourenco is moving with speed to wrestle the economy away from the hands of a few individuals who derived large benefits from political connections. He has already dismissed Jose Filomeno, son of his predecessor Jose Eduardo dos Santos, as chairman of the country’s $5 billion sovereign wealth fund.
Emmerson Mnangagwa continues to log flight hours trying to convince investors that Zimbabwe has entered a new era.
In South Africa, Zuma’s successor Cyril Ramaphosa has taken previously untouchable institutions such as Eskom to task to send a clear message that the country is on a new path.
Even the lacklustre elite crime unit, the Hawks, has suddenly woken up to their constitutional obligations of pursuing white collar crime.
And the Guptas, whose business strategy was modelled on collapsing the governance of the country’s parastatals to milk them dry, appear all set to answer to suspicions of wrongdoing.
So why is South Africa so divided on the man so vilified by the world?
The answer lies in Zuma’s complex yet easy going character. For rural South Africa, Zuma is a shining example of what life can mean for them. Life here is characterised by abject poverty, massive unemployment and lack of development.
He is one of them. That’s why he has been able to build his extensive patronage around the development of parts of his home village of Nkandla.
His rhetoric about white monopoly capital sounds as the quickest way out of their misery. And his talking down of the establishment resonates with them.
As I listened to Zuma giving his side of the story on the developments in South Africa, I could not help but admire his courage to steadfastly refuse calls to step down because he has done nothing wrong.
It became all too clear that he genuinely believed he still had the backing of the vast majority behind him.
He believed that lack of direct foreign investment in South Africa was a figment of some people’s imagination.
He just could not understand why most people found investing in South Africa as laughable as buying shares in the Guptas’ Oakbay Investment Limited.
He refused to take ownership of the fact that under his leadership, the country’s sovereign bonds plummeted from an A grade to junk under his administration, and as a result, the cost of living for
the poorest of the poor has become unbearable.
That state-owned enterprises, which the National Development Plan identified as key drivers of his economic development plan, failed to ignite the economy and instead became enrichment schemes for the Guptas and their associates:
That under him, the rand plunged to levels yet unseen and the stock market wiped out R170 billion because of his making reckless cabinet appointments.
That important institutional memory that could have taken the country forward was lost in key government departments.
That unemployment has reached historic levels.
That during his tenure as head of state, the economy fell from near 4 percent growth to stagnation.
That everyone now has to tighten their belts to cover the R50 billion budget
The list is endless.
But to be fair to Zuma, running a country such as South Africa was always going to prove difficult.
Its modern and sophisticated economy needed more than just giggles in
It needed someone who could move from rhetoric to pragmatism in appreciating what the country’s priorities are and what action plans could be taken to address them.
It needed a lean civil service with a clear understanding of what government policies are.
It means that clowns such as Zwane and Hlaudi Motsoeneng can never be entrusted with key government institutions.
It means aligning our education system to the demands of the new economic realities.
Very few people will remember Zuma as the affable bloke whose charm could disarm even his fiercest critic.
Very few will remember his brilliant assembling of the country’s best minds to craft the National Development Plan, the master stroke of setting up a ministry that dealt directly with small businesses, and his determination to tackle HIV/Aids head-on.
He will be remembered as a bitter old man, who refused to see that the world around him had changed, the same way that Rip van Winkle missed the American Revolution and Mugabe interpreted the scenes of Zimbabweans taking to the streets as a chaotic discussion on what the nation wanted to buy him and Grace as a gift for Christmas.