South Africa’s Executive Shake-up Questions Zuma’s Legitimacy

Josh Finkelstein

September, 2017

Daily Maverick (2016)

Daily Maverick (2016)


On April 12, celebrations honoring the seventy-fifth birthday of South African President, Jacob Zuma, were held in Soweto.

Soweto is home to roughly 1.5 million people. The Johannesburg-area settlement is a historical base of the African National Congress (ANC), the country’s ruling party since the election of Nelson Mandela in 1994.

However, Finance Minister Pravin Gordhan was not present at the celebrations, as he was dismissed by the President Zuma two weeks prior.

Gordhan’s move was branded by the President’s office as simply an overdue aspect of a much-needed “radical socio-economic transformation”. However, responses both from within the country and beyond its borders, seemed to suspicious of a more pernicious motive.

In the days following the dismissal, Standard and Poor dropped the states credit rating to BB+, also known as ‘junk status’. This rating is the highest non-investment grade mark for a country. Standard and Poor justified their downgrading for South Africa’s as there is “increased the likelihood that economic growth and fiscal outcomes could suffer”, especially with the most recent cabinet shuffling.

More notably, the South African Rand had also fell a double-digit amount relative to the American Dollar in the two weeks following the firing of Gordhan. The state’s fiscal vigor is now being called into question, and concerns for their future economic well-being have been raised.  

Throughout Gordhan’s 16-month term he had earned a great respect, perceived as a stable and transparent public figure in an administration that has for much of its reign been suspected of corruption.

A more alarming aspect is Gordhan’s replacement, Minister of Home Affairs Malusi Gigaba, whom has no major experience in finance or economic matters prior to his promotion. Additionally, he is known mostly as an unwaveringly loyal supporter of President Zuma.

Local press have speculated a connection between Gigaba’s hiring and President’s Zuma desire to commission a nuclear energy plant built by his own nephew, Khulubuse Zuma. However, this connect was immediately denied by the government, as the deal had already been signed off by the new Finance Minister, prior to the new breaking that he will be moving to a new office.

Gigaba may have been favoured over Gordhan due to his public support of greater economic redistribution. However, the international response, along with the large civil unrest taking over downtown areas of major South African cities, indicate a widely-held skepticism of the President’s true intentions.

Internally, Zuma’s approval rating has tumbled to 20% as of March of 2017. This follows a downward trend from 39% satisfaction in July of 2015, and a high during his reign of 58% in November of 2009.

Conversely, support for other ANC members to take control of the party before the scheduled elections in 2019 has been rising considerably.

A recent TNS Global poll explored citizen support for the current and alternative state leadership. 56.1% of citizens would back Cyril Ramaphosa, the current Deputy President and regarded businessman. Meanwhile, approximately 40% support Nksosazana Dlamini-Zuma, ex-wife of President Zuma. More interestingly, around a quarter of South Africans would support the controversial racially-based policies of former ANC youth leader Julius Malema and his socialist Economic Freedom Fighter party.

The outcome of the polling indicates the increasing dissatisfaction with President Zuma, rather than the ANC party. The growing discontentment was demonstrated in the Black Monday protests, which called for the president’s resignation.

In the week following the government’s staged birthday celebrations, the opposition, Democratic Alliance, brought forward a motion to hold a non-confidence vote set for approval. The proposal was well-received in parliament, but was ultimately withdrawn following a request for a secret ballot; mainly so ANC members would be free to vote against their own leader without fear of punishment.

By South African law, this requires further study by the Constitutional Court, and will see the vote pushed back possibly beyond the end of 2017, when it is expected that Zuma will announce that he will not run for reelection as leader of the party.

No matter, many ANC members have already spoken up against Zuma, including Cyril Ramaphosa, who called Gordhan’s dismissal “totally unacceptable”.

Despite not yet achieving the same level of economic development as other BRICS states, expectations for the country from around the world have remained high.

The astonishing efforts of Nelson Mandela at reconciliation and rebuilding created a powerful democracy that piqued the interests of investors. This was in contrast to the destabilizing power struggles seen in other nations where the yoke of colonial rule had also been removed.

The growth of existing infrastructure in vital fields like mining, education and banking, and the country’s role as an emergent leader on the continent, and world stage, only furthered this optimism.

However, the GDP growth had stalled at around 1% in 2016. Additionally, frustrations have boiled over to university campuses and large mines, regarding high costs and low wages, leading to public upheaval.

Moreover, despite a proportionately larger middle class than any country on the continent, inadequate wealth distribution and HIV epidemic still contribute to the impoverishment of a large portion of the South Africans. The addition of a corrupt leader in a country may consequent in strained foreign relations, and the greater connection between the continent and the rest of the world.

Moreover, this is not the first time that President Zuma has been embroiled in controversy. He has previously been accused of abuse of state money, which was funneled towards his family homestead in 2013.

More concerning, prior to assuming power in 2009, Zuma had been fired in 2005 as Deputy President by then-president Thabo Mbeki due to suspicions of corruption. He was then rehired in 2008, only to be let go again soon after.

Despite past controversies, President Zuma has never had to face strong and organized opposition of at this level, both from the opposition and his party,

Combined with the long-term impact of an underperforming economy, and the poverty still faced by millions more than twenty years since the end of Apartheid, the dismissal of Gordhan may ultimately be the straw that broke the camel’s back for a regime that has always faced more consistent opposition than did either of its predecessors.

It must come as no surprise thus, that while the state-run celebrations were occurring in Soweto, just to the north in the capital Pretoria, thousands of South Africans took to the streets in another gathering- this one calling for the president’s ouster.