The Party Is Over for Jacob Zuma

The long-term leader of South Africa has outlived countless scandals. It was party politics that finally brought him down.

Jacob Zuma looks down as he gives a speech in South Africa.
Jacob Zuma speaks at the Union Buildings in Pretoria, South Africa, on February 14, 2018.  (Siphiwe Sibeko / Reuters)

After nine years in power, Jacob Zuma announced Wednesday he was immediately resigning from the office of president of South Africa. He outlasted scandal after scandal, but could not survive overt rejection by his party. The new leader of the African National Congress, Cyril Ramaphosa, had made clear that Zuma’s time was up, and, had he not resigned, he would have been forced out by a vote of no-confidence. Zuma’s exit clears the path to power for Ramaphosa, who will become acting president.

But the dynamic that led to this moment—the contest for control of the party taking primacy over national elections—is not resolved by Zuma’s exit. The African National Congress has, critics allege, rested on its laurels since the end of the Nelson Mandela era in the late 1990s. Since then, it has managed to win more than 50 percent of the vote in every national election, which means whoever controls the party effectively controls the state.

Control of the state has come with healthy advantages. Zuma himself was forced to repay millions in official money illegally spent on upgrades to his home—just one of the scandals he survived in office. (Another, his suggestion that HIV transmission could be prevented by showering promptly after sex, became a lasting fixture in editorial cartoons about him.)

The ANC’s rejection of its one-time leader follows a path sets by other parties in the region. In Zimbabwe, the ruling ZANU-PF turned on the aging Robert Mugabe in what amounted to a self-coup. Mugabe was ousted, but the party remained in control. (In a sad coda to that story, Mugabe’s biggest democratic rival, Morgan Tsvangirai, died today after an illness. He never won the presidency, but, arguably, the credible challenge he posed to Mugabe in 2008 was the beginning of the end for Mugabe.)

Last year, Angola’s José Eduardo dos Santos, president for 38 years, stepped down and handed the reins over to his fellow party-member, João Lourenço. That party, the MPLA, also pushed out dos Santos’s fabulously wealth daughter, Isabel, from her prize position as the head of the state oil company. That second decision suggested a more substantive-shake-up than observers expected.

“It was the best opportunity for the MPLA to remain in power,” said Justin Pearce, a lecturer in southern African politics at Cambridge University, who spoke to me before Zuma’s resignation. “As in Zimbabwe, as in South Africa, the changes that we've seen at the top of the ruling parties have been a strategy to try and guarantee the survival of the party in power.”

Unlike Angola and Zimbabwe, South Africa can claim to be a vibrant democracy, despite its troubles. New elections will come in 2019, and voters will have a chance to decide whether the party’s strategy to remain in control is to their liking. The ANC will face them with fresh blood.