How a Great Power Falls Apart
Decline Is Invisible From the Inside
Democracy in South Africa is in tatters. Or at least that’s the widespread view following President Jacob Zuma’s forced resignation on February 14, which ended his almost-nine-year tenure in office. Although South Africans are largely united in celebrating Zuma’s departure, a litany of scandals, allegations of corruption, and a perceived hollowing-out of institutions have led many to conclude that the post-apartheid project under the African National Congress (ANC) has gone rotten. From this vantage point, whereas under Nelson Mandela the country was a beacon of political inclusion and stability on the African continent, under Zuma, South Africa has become yet another “broken democracy.”
This judgement fits comfortably with the views of (typically white) critics who warned that under majority rule South Africa would follow the path of countries such as Zimbabwe, descending into personal rule, nepotism, and economic collapse. The narrative that South Africa’s institutions are failing also dovetails with claims about the decline of democracy around the world.
Yet Zuma’s resignation, and the events that led to it, signal just the opposite. Democracy does not guarantee the selection of honest or competent leaders. It does, however, provide mechanisms for societies to eject bad leaders, either through open elections or internal party processes. The political ouster of Zuma, who showed egregious disregard for the rule of law and an inclination to treat government offices as platforms for self-enrichment, suggests that South Africa’s democratic institutions are functioning as one would hope. Given the backdrop of increasing competition in the country’s local elections and the emergence of coherent opposition parties, the prospects for consolidated democratic rule in South Africa now appear quite good.
When Zuma ascended to the leadership of the ANC in 2007, and then to the presidency in 2009, few believed he would be a saintly leader. He was marred by numerous scandals, including allegations of tax evasion, the alleged rape of Fezeka Kuzwayo, and his widely condemned statement that showering after sex could “minimize the risks of contracting [HIV].” In 2005, portending the future, then-President Thabo Mbeki dismissed Zuma from the post of deputy president after a corruption scandal involving Zuma’s financial advisor.
Supporters of the ANC nevertheless hoped that Zuma’s national election victory in 2009 could help to revitalize a ruling party they feared was growing out of touch with the country’s poorest citizens. In contrast to his predecessors, Zuma brought a populist edge to politics that catered to rural voters, including direct appeals to citizens’ “African” identity. Zuma proudly asserted his Zulu ethnic heritage and was often photographed in traditional attire.
Zuma’s presidency was defined by a tug-of-war between two competing forces: attempts by Zuma to use executive authority for personal and political gain, and efforts by civil society, the news media, party members, and state officials to impose constraints on him. Shortly after his election in 2009, for example, Zuma authorized the spending of $21 million of taxpayer money on improvements to his personal homestead, Nkandla. Investigative journalists broke the story later that year, and by 2014 the National Public Protector Thuli Madonsela had found the president to have unduly benefited from the upgrades. Ultimately, the South African Constitutional Court ordered Zuma to repay more than $500,000, a verdict that he accepted.
A second example of this dynamic was Zuma’s stunning firing of the highly respected Finance Minister Nhlanhla Nene in December 2015, replacing him with a little-known political ally, David “Des” van Rooyen. This attempt to install a more pliant keeper of the national purse created enormous pushback from the business community, leading to sustained allegations of “state capture” by private interests. Within a week, Zuma was pressured to remove van Rooyen and replace him with Nene’s esteemed predecessor, Pravin Gordhan.
Zuma went to war against the constraints on executive power and ended up out of a job.
In the months leading up to his February 14 resignation, it became clear that Zuma was at last losing the battle. In the first sign of discontent, ANC members across the country feared that Zuma’s unpopularity among broad swaths of voters would continue to drag down the party’s reputation and electoral fortunes. At the 2017 party conference, ANC cadres thus voted (albeit narrowly) for Cyril Ramaphosa to lead the party ticket into the 2019 national elections.
Second, and critically, elites in the upper echelons of the ruling party lost patience with Zuma’s evident abuses of power. Revelations of the president’s improper ties and dealings with the wealthy Gupta family, along with sustained chaos in various state-run enterprises, convinced party leaders that the time had come to recall Zuma. Since the president serves at the pleasure of the South African Parliament, in which ANC members hold a strong majority of seats, Ramaphosa and his allies could leverage this dissatisfaction into a credible threat of a vote of no confidence. Although Zuma had weathered earlier votes of no confidence led by opposition parties, this time he had no choice but to resign.
Zuma was hardly an exemplary democrat. Yet, in the end, his removal reflects the basic process of democratic accountability in action. Zuma went to war against the constraints on executive power and ended up out of a job.
It is tempting to draw parallels between Zuma’s fall and the ouster of Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe in November 2017. Both Zuma and Mugabe were liberation struggle figures who fought white-minority regimes, and both relied on populist and race-based appeals in their effort to capture and wield power. Yet, in Zimbabwe, Mugabe was ultimately brought down by a reactionary coup from conservative military leaders who feared losing power to a younger generation headed by Mugabe’s wife, Grace. Despite what the generals claimed, it was clearly an irregular and unconstitutional move that involved the use of military force against an elected civilian president. The replacement of Zuma, by contrast, followed an institutionalized process consistent with the rule of law and democratic principles.
Zuma’s ouster is not the only sign of South Africa’s political health. Pessimistic observers of the country’s democracy often point out that the ANC has dominated every national election since the country’s transition from apartheid in the early 1990s. Political competition and accountability, they argue, must therefore be absent: under one-party rule, corrupt leaders like Zuma are bound to flourish.
Yet South African politics has quite clearly become more competitive in recent years, and political elites face more pressures than ever to respond to the wants and needs of citizens. The best evidence of this trend is that the 2016 local elections were a veritable bloodbath for the ANC. Whereas the ruling party previously controlled seven of the eight large metropolitan (city) municipalities, the ANC was kicked out of power in Johannesburg, Tshwane (Pretoria), and Nelson Mandela Bay (Port Elizabeth). Elsewhere, the ANC was forced to enter into coalition arrangements with smaller parties. Although the ANC still garnered a majority of votes, its margin of victory declined sharply in many regions. An easy win in the 2019 national elections can no longer be taken for granted.
Opposition parties have also found a stronger foothold and now threaten the ANC from both the left and the right. The Democratic Alliance (DA), the successor of two apartheid-era white parties now led by black South African Mmusi Maimane, as well as the leftist Economic Freedom Front (EFF), led by former ANC firebrand Julius Malema, have emerged as well-defined parties. Moreover, they cater to distinct and non-overlapping segments of the electorate. The rise of the EFF is particularly significant. Faced with DA opposition alone, Zuma supporters could have brushed off their detractors as beholden to white racism. But critical voices from parties like the EFF—which comprises many former ANC members—cannot be similarly dismissed.
Democracy should not be conflated with good policymaking.
Given what we know about how electoral competition keeps politicians on their toes, these are certainly positive developments. At the dawn of South Africa’s new democracy, commentators from the left and the right feared a future of one-party dominance akin to the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI)’s more than 70-year reign in Mexico. But these fears no longer appear warranted. Despite the ANC’s almost sacred connection to Mandela and the anti-apartheid liberation struggle, rival parties have found their feet and are managing to attract supporters. This, perhaps even more than Zuma’s non-violent removal, is another promising signal of democratic consolidation.
At the time of writing, South Africa’s political future remains uncertain. Ramaphosa’s political honeymoon is likely to evaporate quickly. Although a former anti-apartheid labor leader and Mandela’s heir apparent, Ramaphosa is also widely viewed as an anti-populist politician and one of the wealthy post-apartheid elite. His critics will not let people forget that, as deputy president, he sat on the board of mining company Lonmin and engaged in fierce private lobbying to put down a wildcat strike at the Marikana mine in 2012. The episode resulted in the deaths of at least 34 miners at the hands of the police, and many see their blood on Ramaphosa’s hands. Organized labor and civil society organizations will be watching Ramaphosa closely to guard against any pro-capital strategies that appear to be built on their backs.
Given these constraints, is there reason to be bullish about South African democracy? The country still faces serious policy challenges, including massive inequality, a weak educational system, and low economic growth. And there is no guarantee that the country’s new leadership will succeed in resolving these problems anytime soon. Indeed, it is possible that Ramaphosa will face popular pressures that make it more difficult to address certain economic or social problems.
But democracy should not be conflated with good policymaking. The Zuma episode—a change in leadership forced through words and ballots, and not bullets—illustrates the increasing maturity of the country’s system of government. In other words, South Africa’s democracy just survived a serious stress test.