Political developments in the last six weeks in South Africa have moved at such a pace—and while generating such a swirl of confusion—that outsiders might consider they were observing a combination of a reality TV show and HBO’s “Game of Thrones,” though without quite as much gore as the latter.
To summarize: While in London with his deputy Mcebisi Jonas to promote foreign investment in South Africa, Finance Minister Pravin Gordhan, who has been investigating financial misdeeds at the political top, is called back to South Africa by President Jacob Zuma on March 27. A day later Ahmed Kathrada, a veteran of the anti-apartheid struggle and long-time associate of Nelson Mandela, dies.
At his interfaith funeral in Johannesburg on March 29, a succession of mourners use the opportunity to denounce Mr. Zuma. Former President Kgalema Motlanthe quotes Mr. Kathrada’s recent open letter to the incumbent president, which called on him to resign. Mr. Gordhan, who attends his old friend’s funeral, gets rousing support from the crowd.
What should one make of this chaotic month? Is the presidency of Jacob Zuma reaching an endgame?
Amid claims of an intelligence report alleging that Mr. Gordhan was using his international tour to subvert the government of South Africa, Mr. Zuma fires Mr. Gordhan and Mr. Jonas and reshuffles his cabinet on March 30, in effect removing in one stroke not only Mr. Gordhan but all ministers suspected of being hostile to his presidency. These include key members of the South African Communist Party, which, although historically in alliance with the ruling African National Congress, has become increasingly hostile to Mr. Zuma’s leadership. The net result is that the president and his faction within the A.N.C. now control not only the “security cluster” of state ministries—defense, security, police and intelligence—but also the “economic cluster”— finance, trade and industry, and by extension the treasury and revenue service.
Within days rating agencies Standard & Poor’s and Fitch downgrade South Africa’s international credit rating to “sub-standard,” known colloquially as junk status. South Africa’s currency, the rand, takes a further dive on the markets, and South Africa’s government and businesses start to face up to the possibility of much higher interest rates on loans and the prospect that many corporations will not invest in the country.
In reaction, Zuma loyalists mock the downgrade, one observing, “Most black people are born in junk status so they aren’t bothered” and another suggesting that the solution to loan problems might lie in closer ties with the other so-called BRICS countries—Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa. As April passes, the currency stabilizes at a weaker level than before—largely, some observers feel, not because of any confidence in the new Finance Minister Malusi Gigaba but because economic uncertainties in the United States and ongoing crises in the Middle East and North Korea make other currencies poor choices too.
The rifts within the ruling alliance grow. Apart from the S.A.C.P., large sections of the Congress of South African Trade Unions weighs in against Mr. Zuma, culminating in the embattled president being booed into silence at the Congress’s May Day rally. While many prominent figures voice their opposition to Mr. Zuma, others wonder about the extent to which A.N.C. stalwarts are ready to actively oppose him. Political analyst Roger Southall warns that such a rebellion is unlikely.
Meanwhile, opposition parties of all stripes, as well as representatives from civil society, continue protests against the president throughout April. While some, including A.N.C. insiders, strongly suspect that Mr. Zuma’s continued presidency might cost the party its majority in the 2019 national election, others are less optimistic that the party can be removed from power. The protests themselves frequently lack coordination between various political and civic entities—which are usually hostile to each other—and remain an urban phenomenon. Moreover, the experience of coalition governments in cities the A.N.C. lost in the 2016 local elections manifest deep tensions that would magnify nationally if the A.N.C. is unseated at the national level.
As April draws to a close, Mr. Zuma faces trouble in the courts. On April 29 the Cape High Court rules that his attempts to make a deal with Russia to build nuclear power plants are invalid and unconstitutional. Shortly after that a former associate of Mr. Zuma’s files an affidavit alleging that the president had tried to bribe him in the late 1990s during an infamous arms deal scandal—a blast from the past that has come back to haunt Mr. Zuma.
What then should one make of this chaotic month? Is the presidency of Jacob Zuma reaching an endgame? Despite all the pressure on the president, Mr. Southall’s analysis from about a month ago still stands. Jacob Zuma’s resilience—the “Teflon president” many call him here—should not be underestimated.
He has control over the cabinet and because of his control over the national leadership of the A.N.C. he also controls almost all the party’s parliamentary majority. He is unlikely to be impeached. Nor will he voluntarily step down—the moment he does so he will face up to 770 criminal charges. My bet is he will remain in power until the next general election in 2019. After two five-year terms, he is barred from running again.
What of the ruling party’s upcoming electoral conference in December? Mr. Zuma and his colleagues are already quietly trying to get a presidential candidate acceptable to them elected. (Some suspect names include his ex-wife Nkosozana Dlamini-Zuma and House Speaker Baleke Mbete). This is essential to the president: At very least he needs someone who can give him a presidential pardon to escape prison. At best, one suspects that he seeks a malleable leader whom he can guide from the shadows in what one might call a “Putin scenario.”
This is by no means a certainty if the level of grassroots discontent with Mr. Zuma is as strong as some think.
Will Mr. Zuma’s continuing leadership or the selection of a friendly successor affect the 2019 election? Though the A.N.C. has lost ground, neither of its alternatives—the Democratic Alliance and the Economic Freedom Fighters—has sufficient strength on its own to govern. While an alliance of convenience is possible, it would look, in United States terms, a bit like a Jeb Bush-Bernie Sanders coalition: a union of polar opposites. To many a disaffected South African voter, the instability that combination suggests might be daunting, leading to a “better the devil we know” choice.