When—among others—a former Cabinet Minister, a former Ambassador to London and a retired judge of the Constitutional Court (who also helped draft the 1996 South African Constitution), all of them African National Congress stalwarts, publicly tell President Jacob Zuma to resign, one may only assume that cracks are appearing in the edifice of A.N.C. power.
Meeting on the steps of the Constitutional Court in Johannesburg on April 6, a broad coalition, “United Against Corruption,” announced its intention to mobilize civil society—local communities, trade unions, churches and religious groups—against Zuma with the intention of forcing him to resign. Significantly, perhaps a cause for concern, no plan has been pre-formulated but will start with broad-based consultations with ordinary citizens first before any direct action is undertaken.
Among the many speakers calling for Zuma’s resignation were veteran A.N.C. leaders like Cheryl Carolus, Mavuso Msimang, Ronnie Kasrils and retired judge Zak Yacoob.
“It is my organization that I have lived for and my organization that I know many have died for,” said Cheryl Carolus, former grassroots activist, A.N.C. Member of Parliament and sometime ambassador to Great Britain. She continued, “But yesterday was perhaps a frog-in-the-pot moment for many of us to see where our organization has come to in its leadership of our country.” She admitted, as did Mavuso Msimang, that she’d never imagined herself standing up at a rally attacking her party. But this had now happened. Under Zuma the once-great movement had become corrupted.
Ronnie Lamola, recently deposed from leadership in the A.N.C. Youth League, argued that this anger and disgust with Zuma was widespread. At least one A.N.C. branch had called for his deposing. Many other rank-and-filers felt the same.
Former Cabinet Minister Ronnie Kasrils echoed her sentiments, adding an even more saddening note. He reminded the audience that before he took control of the A.N.C. leadership reins in 2007, Zuma had been acquitted in 2006 of a rape charge. The unnamed young woman was the daughter of an A.N.C. comrade Kasrils and Zuma had worked with in exile during the 1980s—they had known her since she was 2 years old. Though the charge of rape was never proven, the judge had been scathing about Zuma’s moral character.
The A.N.C. should have seen the warning signs even then, back during the exile period, Kasrils later observed. His lack of morals and greed were manifest even then, he charged, but “we chose to overlook them.”
Retired Constitutional Court Judge Zak Yacoob started by saying that when he and other jurists and political leaders were drafting the Constitution he had successfully argued that no specific clauses should be included detailing how the Constitutional Court should be able to impeach a sitting president. No such legislation existed in previous constitutions and to include it, he felt, was racist. He had every confidence that Parliament could do it themselves.
Adding his voice to the call for Zuma’s resignation, he argued that though the rot in South Africa started from the head, the A.N.C. itself was seriously morally compromised, hijacked by a self-serving bloc centred around the president. Getting rid of Zuma was only the start. The A.N.C. needed to clean itself up.
What are we to make of all this? Could this be the end of Jacob Zuma? Much as I liked what I heard, much as I appreciate the courage and integrity of the speakers (whom I’ve admired for many years), I am somewhat skeptical. Not, let me emphasize, of their genuineness. My skepticism is rooted in their ability, as veterans who are largely retired from active public life, to shift the current leadership in the A.N.C. Moreover, as Judge Yacoob noted, the rot in the A.N.C. goes much further than Jacob Zuma.
In 2007 Jacob Zuma and his friends seized control of the party itself. Disaffected with Thabo Mbeki’s authoritarian leadership style, the voting delegates to the national conference in Polokwane not only deposed Mbeki from party leadership, but also almost all the National Executive associated with him. Since then the tranche of Zuma supporters who took over have systematically replaced key figures in party and in government with Zuma people. Under the party list proportional representation system we have, the A.N.C. leadership has also strongly influenced who got selected as Parliamentary candidates in the 2009 and 2014 national elections.
In essence, it is not just Jacob Zuma but a whole group around him who have captured the party, Parliament and provincial and civil government. They will not be easily removed even if Jacob Zuma resigns.
I am also uncertain about the effectiveness of the United Against Corruption coalition. At one level, as some commentators have noted, they have no clear action plan. This would seem like weakness.
On the other hand, the fact that they seem committed to meet with civil society to first discuss what should be done could be a sign of hope. In the past hastily called rallies and protest marches have failed precisely because they lacked the depth of support and buy-in of ordinary citizens. Though not politically “sexy: In our highly charged public climate, the practice of systematic coalition-building and the development of new, non-violent strategies and tactics of dissent may produce a positive long term effect.
Watch this space. It’s not over yet.
Anthony Egan, S.J., a member of the Jesuit Institute South Africa, is one of America’s Johannesburg correspondents.