South Africa is in flames over its graft-plagued former president. After the 79-year-old Jacob Zuma turned himself in to authorities to begin a 15-month prison sentence for contempt of court on July 8, violent protests and riots erupted in parts of the country, and at least 72 people have been killed in the unrest so far. Earlier this week, President Cyril Ramaphosa deployed the military to the worst-hit parts of the country.
Underneath the riots and looting, Zuma’s prison sentence—which the Constitutional Court handed down in late June after he refused to testify before the official commission of inquiry charged with probing the corruption that blighted his decade-long presidency—captured the best and worst aspects of post-apartheid South Africa. It reaffirmed a core principle of democratic government: No one, whatever their past or present station, is above the law.
By contrast, it is concerning that, in responding to the judgment, a former president would attack the courts and display such disdain for the rule of law and the constitution, even going so far as to tell his supporters that he is a “prisoner of conscience” and comparing his legal woes to the anti-apartheid struggle that he helped to lead. His arrest has also exposed a fundamental division in the ruling African National Congress party, or ANC: between its reformist modernizers under Ramaphosa, and a more reactionary camp gathered around Zuma and the party’s former secretary-general, Ace Magashule, who was recently suspended due to corruption allegations.
Even after his removal from the presidency in 2018, Zuma has continued to cast a long shadow over the ANC and South Africa. His supporters still constitute a significant bloc within the ANC, with the capacity to impede Ramaphosa’s efforts to cleanse the party and root out entrenched networks of corruption. Indeed, Zuma’s allies can still be found in the ANC’s upper echelons, in various provincial governments and in the party’s parliamentary caucus.
Yet their presence is also advantageous for Ramaphosa. Zuma’s fall from grace highlights precisely the type of politics from which Ramaphosa is seeking a definitive break. His arrest was a timely reminder of the kind of behavior that drove South Africa into an economic abyss, eroding investor confidence and draining away international goodwill. It therefore allows Ramaphosa to mobilize broad support for his program both inside and outside the ANC, as even those skeptical of his presidency do not want to jeopardize his position or embolden the Zuma-Magashule faction, whose return to power would guarantee South Africa’s demise. Indeed, Ramaphosa has successfully defined the country’s politics in zero-sum terms: his project versus Zuma’s, which was responsible for South Africa’s “nine wasted years” of dysfunctional governance and endemic corruption.
However, as the recent protests underscore, Ramaphosa must proceed carefully. Zuma’s standard defense—and now Magashule’s, as well—is that he is the victim of a political conspiracy and that legal action against him is purely an extension of the ANC’s factional politics. These arguments are highly potent in mobilizing popular support. The attempts to politicize legal processes are also designed to secure the dropping of charges on the grounds that the cases have been contaminated by political interference. Consequently, Ramaphosa’s wisest approach is to stay resolutely silent on individual cases and allow the law to take its course. He must also insist, however, that the defense of the constitution and the rule of law, not to mention public safety, are issues on which no president can remain silent or neutral.
This is a clash of political cultures within the ANC, which has now sadly spread to actual violent clashes in the streets. Beyond a shared commitment to the ANC’s electoral dominance and its liberation heritage, these two camps have few values in common, although political opportunists inevitably move between factions as the balance of power ebbs and flows. On one side is Ramaphosa, whose modernization project depends upon purging the most corrupt elements from the party and rebuilding a capable state, including the state-owned enterprises that were hollowed out during the Zuma era. This is designed to reverse state capture, promote investment and restore South Africa’s diminished global standing.
Underneath the riots and looting, Zuma’s prison sentence captured the best and worst aspects of post-apartheid South Africa.
On the other side is the Zuma-Magashule faction whose modus operandi is a personalized politics based on patronage networks, the abuse of formal state institutions and the creation of informal structures that function almost like a shadow government, through which resources and favors flow between patrons and clients. This neo-patrimonial model, recognizable to students of the post-colonial African state, has led successive countries across the continent to various forms of post-independence ruin. Nepotism and cronyism are rampant, with positions based on loyalty to the leader and his entourage. The plunder of state resources is not an unfortunate by-product of such a system, but rather its central purpose.
The constitution, then, becomes an irrelevant ornament, and the independence of the judiciary a fiction. That South Africa did not reach this stage under Zuma is attributable to the robustness of its institutions and the willingness of people in the ANC, the judiciary, opposition parties, state institutions, the media and civil society to mobilize in the country’s defense. With Zuma’s humbling and the charges hanging over Magashule, this faction now appears to be on the ropes. On July 7, the ANC’s National Executive Committee reinforced this impression when stressing its “unequivocal commitment” to the constitution and the rule of law, stating that the “interests of an individual” could not take precedence over the interests of the nation. This was an emphatic repudiation of Zuma and his support base—some of whom may now face suspension or expulsion—and a sign of Ramaphosa’s growing strength.
That said, it is important not to become locked into an overly simplistic view of events that pits Ramaphosa’s “good ANC” versus Zuma’s “bad ANC.” The malignancy of the Zuma-Magashule faction, with their toxic blend of militant sloganizing and kleptocracy, is indisputable. But the Ramaphosa camp, too, has its failings and contradictions, which undermine South Africa’s prospects for reform and modernization.
Ramaphosa is a product of the liberation tradition that has generated a culture of ANC exceptionalism. Its self-image is that of a hegemonic party, indelibly intertwined with the nation itself, a vision rooted in the ANC’s leadership of the liberation struggle and its post-apartheid electoral dominance. All of this has combined to produce a hubristic sense of entitlement—that the ANC is unique and not subject to the same constraints binding other parties.
Although Zuma has claimed on occasions that the ANC is more important than the constitution—more important, even, than South Africa itself—Ramaphosa, too, has defended egregious ANC behavior over the past decade. He claimed, inaccurately, that corruption is an aberration rather than the norm within the party. He also defends the ANC’s policy of cadre deployment, in which it places loyalists in strategic positions throughout the state apparatus irrespective of their ability to perform those roles effectively. This has led to many state-owned enterprises, such as the power utility ESKOM and South African Airways, becoming completely dysfunctional. Finally, Ramaphosa served as deputy president of the ANC under Zuma from 2012 until 2017, and deputy president of the country under him from 2014 to 2018, so he cannot wholly detach himself from the “nine wasted years.”
The ANC’s culture of exceptionalism contains the seeds of authoritarianism and an intolerance of opposition, as it encourages the view that to oppose the ruling party is to oppose “the people.” It also serves as an impediment to the nurturing of the rational, capable state to which Ramaphosa is formally committed, while hindering the development of a pluralistic post-liberation politics that is more compatible with a constitutional democracy, and which reflects the socio-economic composition of the country.
Moreover, the ANC’s high degree of factionalization, where even the camps within it are diverse and often transient, makes effective governance difficult. Bold leadership is discouraged and a politics of the lowest common denominator, designed to hold the fractious coalition together, is prioritized. Thus, Ramaphosa remains trapped in a paradox: He is committed to modernization and reform, but the party he leads can go only so far in this regard and remains a barrier to its full realization. That paradox is likely to remain a defining feature of South African politics even if Zuma’s faction is vanquished completely.