The Slatest

Ousting Jacob Zuma Is Just the Beginning

PRETORIA, SOUTH AFRICA - APRIL 7, 2017: South African political opposition activists gather in Pretoria, on April 7, 2017 at a march calling for the ousting of the embattled President Jacob Zuma. President Jacob Zuma is facing pressure to step down following a controversial cabinet reshuffle and mass corruption charges. (Photo by Brent Stirton/Getty Images)
South African political opposition activists gather in Pretoria, on April 7, 2017.
Brent Stirton/Getty Images

The ruling African National Congress has called for a vote of no confidence in President Jacob Zuma and hopes to replace him as early as Thursday. The scandal-ridden Zuma has been living on the edge since mid-December when his rival Cyril Ramaphosa won a vote to succeed him as leader of the ANC. But this week, the party demanded that Zuma step down before his term is up. He’s refusing, setting up a showdown in parliament. [Update, 4:10 p.m. EST: Zuma has resigned.]

Zuma is accused of allowing members of the wealthy Gupta family to wield undue influence in exchange for favors, gifts, and jobs for members of his own family. Police raided the Gupta family home on Wednesday as part of a wide-ranging corruption investigation.

Zuma would be the second South African president in a row to be ousted by his own party before the end of his term. Thabo Mbeki, who succeeded Nelson Mandela, stepped down in 2008 over allegations that he misused his office in a power struggle with Zuma. The 75-year-old Zuma is a veteran of the anti-apartheid struggle and spent time in the infamous Robben Island prison with Mandela, though he was associated with the more militant wing of the party. His presidency has been divisive and controversial, characterized by slow economic growth and endemic corruption. The ANC, which has dominated the country’s politics since the end of apartheid, lost control of the cities of Johannesburg, Cape Town, and Pretoria in local elections in 2016, a shocking result blamed on the party’s corruption scandals.

Despite the ANC’s recent setbacks, Ramaphosa, who presents himself as an economic reformer, is still heavily favored to win next year’s election, which will make the country’s international investors happy. But he will still have his work cut out for him if he plans to complete his term in less ignominious fashion than his two predecessors.

Growth in Africa’s second largest economy has been dismally slow, with stubbornly high unemployment. Inequality is a major issue, exacerbating the country’s still-stark racial divide: As of 2015, black South Africans earned only about one-fifth of what whites did, according to government figures. In 2016, the country was roiled by student protests, which sometimes turned violent, demanding free education.  Cape Town’s water crisis is turning into a full-fledged environmental disaster, with the government likely to be forced to turn off water taps in June.

Then, of course, there’s the overwhelming issue of corruption. “State capture,” a wonky economics term in most of the world, has become a popular phrase in South Africa to describe the overwhelming political influence wielded by powerful economic institutions. Zuma’s relationship with the Gupta family is just the most blatant and publicized example of many.

Between Zuma and Israel’s Benjamin Netanyahu, it’s been quite the week for controversial, ethno-nationalist, populist leaders being made to answer (or at least starting to be made to answer) for their greed and abuse of power. Perhaps there’s some hope for accountability in the world after all.

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Joshua Keating

Joshua Keating is a staff writer at Slate focusing on international affairs and author of the forthcoming book, Invisible Countries.