Johannesburg - A little over 20 years since the end of apartheid, South Africa has declined from an international beacon under the inspirational leadership of Nelson Mandela to a case history for unfulfilled potential under President Jacob Zuma.
It is startling to consider that the Rainbow Nation, which nurtured an icon of the 20th century in Mandela and another almost saintly figure in Archbishop Desmond Tutu, has also produced Zuma, tainted by numerous corruption scandals and a symbol of the government’s failure to fulfil the hopes of the majority black population when apartheid ended in 1994.
South Africa remains one of the most unequal societies in the world, with the poor living in misery while the rich, both black and white, enjoy privileges and luxury.
Comparisons with Mandela are iniquitous, given his god-like status. But Zuma, 75, appears to have taken the country in the opposite direction to the iconic statesman.
Far from being a beacon, South Africa can now in some ways be compared to other African countries sadly scarred by misgovernment and corruption – the very outcome Mandela strove to avoid.
CATALOGUE OF SCANDALS
Zuma, president since 2009, has been linked to an eye-watering catalogue of sexual and financial scandals that go back to his time as vice president in 2005 when he was fired by Mandela’s successor, Thabo Mbeki, because of the conviction of his financial advisor for bribery.
Other scandals included spending about R210 million ($16 million) of public money on upgrading his private residence.
South Africa has the most sophisticated economy in sub-Saharan Africa and is blessed with abundant natural resources. But it is in recession, and unemployment is at a 14-year high of nearly 28 percent.
What is more, the rand currency slumped and two of the three global ratings agencies downgraded South Africa to junk after Zuma in March abruptly fired his respected Finance Minister Pravin Gordhan and replaced him with inexperienced loyalist Malusi Gigaba, the second time he had provoked a similar crisis.
Zuma said recently growth for this year would be below 0.5 percent, against earlier forecasts of 1.3 percent.
The long-dominant ANC suffered its worst electoral setback last year, losing control of local government in Johannesburg, the capital Pretoria and the important eastern city of Port Elizabeth. The party leadership acknowledges that the ANC is seen as corrupt and untrustworthy.
Until now, the monolithic party has stood by Zuma and saved him from no less than eight parliamentary no-confidence motions.
But there are signs party members are finally losing patience, aware that their continued dominance may depend on dumping him.
Several anti-apartheid veterans and senior figures, including Mandela’s close friend and companion on Robben Island, Ahmed Kathrada, have called for Zuma to resign. Kathrada’s family asked Zuma not to attend his funeral in March.
GUPTA SCANDAL LAST STRAW?
Zuma has shrugged off many challenges, aided by his tactical skills, charisma and common touch, which still appeal to the party’s rural base. But the most recent scandal may have finally broken the camel’s back for many party members.
Thousands of leaked emails allege that Zuma’s business friends, the Indian-born Gupta brothers, have corruptly won hundreds of millions of dollars of public contracts and created a powerful shadow government, in what has been dubbed “state capture.” Both Zuma and the Guptas have denied wrongdoing.
The big British PR company Bell Pottinger withdrew from its relationship with the Guptas in April. In July, it fired a partner and expressed regret for an “inappropriate and offensive” social media campaign that the leaked emails alleged wilfully exacerbated racial tensions to help Zuma deflect responsibility for the failure to create greater equality.
Zuma faces a new parliamentary no-confidence vote on August 8. The president would have to resign if 50 of the party’s 249 MPs rebelled, although most pundits think he will survive for now. However, he must give up leadership of the ANC at the end of his party term in December.
If Zuma’s candidate, his former wife Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, wins the ANC leadership, he could see out his presidential term until 2019, helped by his rural popularity and powerful patronage network.
But if her main opponent, trade unionist-turned-business magnate Cyril Ramaphosa, the deputy president, defeats her, Zuma may well be forced out – the same fate he engineered for Mbeki in 2008.
The ANC majority may decide the only way to stop the rot will be to get rid of Zuma quickly and try to generate more tangible benefits for the black population. If that happens, perhaps South Africa can return to being the inspirational Rainbow Nation it once was.
* Barry Moody was Africa Editor for Reuters for 10 years and Middle East editor for seven, during which time he led coverage of the 2003 Iraq war. He worked on every continent as one of the agency’s most experienced foreign correspondents and editors. His postings included Italy, Asia, Australasia and the United States. He ran editorial operations in Italy, Spain, Greece and Portugal at the height of the EU debt crisis.
** The views expressed here are not necessarily those of Independent Media.