The task before Cyril Ramaphosa, the new leader of the African National Congress

The new leader of the African National Congress must face up to the toll taken by the Zuma years

Published - January 01, 2018 12:02 am IST

A ruling by South Africa’s Constitutional Court on Friday, December 29, that Parliament should put in place a mechanism for Jacob Zuma ’s removal is a judicial setback for the President. The potentially premature end to his scandal-plagued tenure will also be a political blow for Cyril Ramaphosa, the Deputy President, who was elected leader of the African National Congress (ANC) at the party’s conference last month. The business tycoon and trade union leader narrowly beat Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, a former minister, Mr. Zuma’s ex-wife and preferred candidate, in the December 18 vote. As the organisation’s new leader, Mr. Ramaphosa will also lead the party into the country’s 2019 general elections.

His victory intensified speculation over the early exit of the beleaguered Mr. Zuma, who has been embroiled in allegations of high profile corruption that predate his presidential tenure since 2009. But the election of a number of Mr. Zuma’s supporters to the ANC top executive in last month’s organisational poll may have put paid to such hopes, even if their populist programmes will constrict Mr. Ramaphosa’s pragmatic approach on the economy before the 2019 popular vote.

The most spectacular of Mr. Zuma’s controversial links involves “state capture;” a cryptic description of the strategic connections between the President’s family and the mining and media empire of the now notorious Gupta brothers . Tales of how the Guptas cornered lucrative state contracts and even influenced ministerial appointments in their adopted home were recently recounted before the U.K. House of Lords by veteran anti-apartheid campaigner Peter Hain. Dealings with the Guptas have tarnished the reputation of a U.K.-based public relations agency, beside other global consulting, software and financial management firms.

Storm of litigation

A scathing report in November 2016 by South Africa’s former public protector — which the President initially blocked — argued for an inquiry into Mr. Zuma’s ties with the Guptas. A year later, in December, the Pretoria High Court ordered Mr. Zuma to act on that recommendation within a month, even as it characterised the delay as tantamount to disregarding the ombudsman’s constitutional duties. The court referred the task of appointing the judges on that commission to the Chief Justice, citing the obvious conflict of interest involved in the President’s bid.

But even as a combative Mr. Zuma has brazened out mounting judicial challenges and growing opposition to his rule, his past record of excesses seems to be fast catching up with him. In October, the country’s highest appeals court upheld a verdict reinstating nearly 800 charges of corruption, fraud, money-laundering and racketeering in a multi-million dollar arms deal. These cases have a long history of mysteriously being reopened and set aside several times since the eve of Mr. Zuma’s ascent to office in 2009. Perhaps buttressing the prospects for trials on this occasion, the Pretoria court in December ordered the removal of the country’s chief prosecutor, a Zuma appointee, handing responsibility to select his successor to the Deputy President.

The verdict of the country’s highest court last week acquires significance against this engulfing storm of litigation. The majority ruled that Parliament had failed to hold Mr. Zuma to account for the use of millions of rands of public funds to upgrade his rural home in Nkandla, in his native province of KwaZulu-Natal. The court left no room for doubt as to what precisely it meant by the failure of the legislature. It cited Section 89 of South Africa’s Constitution, which provides for the President’s removal for gross misconduct or violation of the Constitution, if two-thirds of the National Assembly backed such a move.

Challenges ahead

The latest verdict is a sequel to the court’s unanimous 2016 ruling, when it held that Mr. Zuma’s refusal to reimburse the state, as per the 2014 recommendations of the country’s public protector, was inconsistent with the Constitution. Mr. Zuma survived an opposition-triggered impeachment motion in Parliament within days of the judicial rebuke, as also a string of motions of no-confidence in more recent months.

But the ANC, under a dynamic new leader, could find it hard to ignore both its diminishing moral authority as the champion of the liberation movement or the political price of defending an embattled Mr. Zuma. Conversely, the prospects of Nelson Mandela’s protege winning the country’s presidency depend on regaining the trust of the black majority that has grown alienated from the erstwhile anti-apartheid movement. Critical to redressing the malaise is a boost to school education and black empowerment programmes that cater to wider sections outside the ANC’s ranks.

The promise of free university education and the expropriation of land without compensation — planks of Mr. Ramaphosa’s rivals which the party adopted in December — underscore the difficult trade-offs the perceived market-friendly new leader would have to negotiate. Another contentious resolution on the nationalisation of South Africa’s central bank has been received with some caution by the institution. Vibrant civic campaigns, a strong opposition and an independent judiciary have been the hallmarks of democratic South Africa. Their further consolidation is an imperative more than ever.

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