Johannesburg - Before he was pushed from office, President Jacob Zuma went from fighting apartheid to facing multiple accusations of corruption during a political career that spanned almost six decades.
His resignation will bring an end to an ignominious tenure that undermined the nation’s democracy and crippled the economy.
Zuma announced his departure late on Wednesday in a national broadcast just hours before the ruling African National Congress was scheduled to vote on a motion of no confidence in him in parliament. His decision leaves the leadership of the nation in the hands of the party’s leader, Cyril Ramaphosa.
Zuma had been dogged by scandal since he took office in 2009, including a finding by the nation’s top court that he violated his oath of office and implications by investigators and leading academics that he let his son’s business partners loot state companies. His haphazard approach toward policymaking and controversial appointments weighed on growth and investor confidence, reversing many of the gains South Africa made since white minority rule ended in 1994.
“Jacob Zuma was the wrong man at the right time,” said Sydney Mufamadi, director of the School of Leadership at Witwatersrand University in Johannesburg. “He had the perfect opportunity to improve the lives of the people and to build the economy. He pursued his own interests instead and was as close to a one-man disaster for the country as there could possibly be.”
Public debt tripled, growth stagnated and two ratings companies downgraded South Africa’s foreign-currency debt to junk under Zuma’s rule. Investors have more confidence that Ramaphosa can fix the economy.
Zuma, meanwhile, is running out of legal options to avoid standing trial on graft charges that were dropped just weeks before he became president in 2009. And he’s likely to be summoned before a commission of inquiry set up to investigate allegations that he allowed members of the wealthy Gupta family to exert undue influence over the state.
It’s a bitter fate for a man who rose to the peak of power even though he had no formal education.
He was born in the village of Nkandla in the eastern KwaZulu-Natal province. His father, a policeman, died when he was five and his mother earned too little working as a maid to send him to school, so he tended an uncle’s livestock and friends taught him to read. He joined the ANC in 1959 and three years later became a member of its armed wing, which fought against white minority rule.
Zuma was arrested while trying to leave the country in 1963, was convicted on charges of seeking to overthrow the state and served a 10-year sentence alongside Nelson Mandela on Robben Island. By 1990, with international pressure to end apartheid mounting, the government secretly brought Zuma back from exile to help coordinate talks with the ANC that culminated in the 1994 elections and Mandela’s presidency. After the vote, Zuma became economic affairs minister in KwaZulu-Natal.
Thabo Mbeki named Zuma deputy president after succeeding Mandela in 1999, only to fire him in 2005 after allegations surfaced that his financial adviser tried to solicit a bribe for him. Zuma proclaimed his innocence and prosecutors dropped charges against him. The courts reinstated the case last year.
The scandal proved a temporary setback. Zuma won control of the ANC in December 2007 by trouncing Mbeki, who was dumped as the nation’s president eight months later. Kgalema Motlanthe then took over as caretaker president until Zuma assumed the post in May 2009.
Zuma secured a second presidential term in 2014. While his administration increased access to welfare grants and AIDS drugs, it didn’t meet pledges to create jobs for the more than 25% of workers who were unemployed, revamp a failing education system or take a stand against graft - something of which Zuma himself was accused.
In 2014, the Public Protector found that the president unfairly benefited from a state-funded R215.9m upgrade of his private home, and the Constitutional Court ruled that he broke his oath of office when he ignored a directive to pay back part of the money. Another ombudsman’s report released in 2016 alleged that Zuma allowed the three Gupta brothers to influence cabinet appointments and the awarding of state contracts.
A study released by eight leading academics in March last year concluded that Zuma, the Guptas and their allies had orchestrated “a silent coup” by securing control over key posts, enabling them to steal billions of rand from state companies. While Zuma and the Guptas denied wrongdoing, leaked emails allegedly written by members of the family and their associates added credence to the accusations.
In late 2015, Zuma sent the rand into free fall when he fired his respected finance minister and replaced him with little-known lawmaker Des van Rooyen. He backtracked four days later, appointing Pravin Gordhan, who’d held the post from 2009 to 2014. Gordhan was then replaced in March last year by Malusi Gigaba, who had no experience in finance.
While the ANC repeatedly defended Zuma, urban voters were less forgiving and handed control of Johannesburg and Pretoria to opposition coalitions in municipal elections in 2016.
Like Mbeki, Zuma’s eventual undoing was his loss of control of the ruling party. While he favored Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, his ex-wife and the mother of four of his more than 20 children, to succeed him, Ramaphosa secured the support of key provincial power brokers to win the post.
Zuma “has caused massive damage,” said Sethulego Matebesi, a political analyst at the University of the Free State in Bloemfontein. “Whoever takes over from him will face an uphill battle to correct the country and the party.”
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