Johannesburg: Jacob Zuma’s resignation as president of South Africa ends a nine-year rule seen by many as the most troubled period for the “ rainbow nation “ since the end of the racist apartheid regime 24 years ago.
Zuma’s decision comes after days of intense pressure from opponents within the African National Congress (ANC), the deeply divided ruling party.
The 75-year-old political veteran leaves office mired in allegations of wrongdoing, ranging from improper relations with a family of wealthy businessmen to economic mismanagement. He has denied all allegations against him.
Cyril Ramaphosa, the deputy president and the standard bearer of the reformist wing of the ANC, will now take power as interim president pending election by parliamentary vote.
The news will please the business community, markets and international investors. Millions of South Africans from all communities who were concerned about the long-term consequences of Zuma’s rule for a country struggling to overcome many of the most damaging legacies of its troubled history will also be relieved. Some are already talking about a “Cyril Spring”.
“He’s a good man. He [Ramaphosa] has the country’s interests in his heart, not his own or some family’s,” said Gwede Dube, a 39-year-old carpenter, as he queued in central Johannesburg for an overcrowded minibus to return to his home on the distant outskirts.
Ramaphosa, 68, a former union leader and multimillionaire businessman, won the leadership of ANC in a hotly contested internal election in December and will lead the party into general elections next year.
Zuma had led the ANC since 2007 and was South Africa’s president since 2009. His tenure in both posts was controversial.
Many ANC loyalists accuse him of having undermined the image and legitimacy of the 105-year-old party that led South Africans to freedom in 1994 and has ruled since.
Others on the left of the party say Zuma was a radical reformer who tried to help South Africa’s poorest but fell victim to the “forces of capitalism”.
“Our past legacy is oppression and theft. These capitalist forces decide who can be a president in our country. He never assessed this reality ... so his approach was wrong,” said Billy Tsotetsi, an ANC official and TV commentator.
The ANC still dominates the country’s political landscape but its popularity has been dented by a failure to transform the lives of the country’s poor. The party lost control of several cities in municipal elections in 2016 and, even with Ramaphosa in power, may be forced into a coalition after the 2019 vote.
It is unclear if Zuma, who was born in a remote village and grew up in poverty in what is today South Africa’s south-eastern KwaZulu-Natal province, negotiated any deal to protect himself from prosecution on corruption charges.
But his stubborn refusal to leave power has not surprised analysts.
“He gave a lesson in how to protect yourself and build your own empire. He can still say he has never been convicted in court. He can still say ‘show me what I did wrong’,” said Susan Booysen, a politics professor at the University of Witwatersrand, Johannesburg.
The son of a policeman and a domestic worker, Zuma received no formal schooling and joined the ANC at 17. Imprisoned under the apartheid regime, he was taught to read and write by other inmates in prison on Robben Island, where Nelson Mandela was also incarcerated.
Zuma left South Africa for Mozambique after his release, where he helped run ANC military training camps. He rose rapidly up the party hierarchy, becoming head of internal intelligence and security.
As apartheid crumbled, Zuma returned to South Africa and played a key role in countering the powerful Inkatha Freedom party in the south-east of the country where he had grown up.
As a Zulu, Zuma stood out among the Xhosa-dominated top ranks of the party and his rough charisma contrasted with the aristocratic style of Mandela, a trained lawyer from a royal house, and the educated sophistication of Thabo Mbeki, who Zuma ousted as ANC leader in 2008.
This was seen as an advantage when Zuma won the general election of 2009. Many hoped his boisterous charm, traditional values and singing voice would help the ANC to reconnect with its popular base.
Though an early move to overhaul to the country’s Aids policy has been credited with saving many lives, the scandals rapidly mounted.
“There is so much disrepute coming from this era it is difficult to contemplate,” said Booysen.
Graft charges dating back to the 1990s were reinstated, while in 2016 Zuma was ordered by South Africa’s highest court to repay some of the taxpayers’ money used for upgrades to his sprawling homestead in Zululand.
The highest-profile controversies have involved Zuma’s relations with the Guptas, one of South Africa’s wealthiest business families. Zuma has been accused of allowing the Guptas to benefit from lucrative government contracts and influence top official appointments. Critics allege Zuma presided over a vast patronage system irrigated by public funds. He denies any wrongdoing. The Guptas and his many close associates, some of whom have also been accused of corruption by local media, also deny any wrongdoing.
Some have spoken of “the wheels coming off the vehicle of our state”.
“We have seen a weakening of critical institutions such as the South African Revenue Service, the National Prosecuting Authority and law enforcement bodies due to political meddling for private interests,” said Njabulo Ndebele, the chairman of the Nelson Mandela Foundation, in a rare political intervention in 2016.
Zuma’s economic management has also been fiercely criticised. During his two terms, South Africa’s population has increased from 50 million to 55 million, while economic growth has slumped. One of his last acts was to announce free tertiary education for needy students — a measure his own officials have described as unaffordable. His decision to sack two respected and experienced finance ministers roiled markets and sent the rand plunging.
His defeat at December polls when a new ANC president was elected signalled his significant weakening.
Zuma had entertained delegates at the conference in Johannesburg with a rendition of his trademark tune — the struggle anthem Bring Me My Machine [Gun] — but his network of powerful supporters was unable to deliver enough votes to win his former wife, Nkosozana Dlamini-Zuma, the top party job.
It was clear that power was slipping away. Less than two months later Zuma, the consummate inside operator, is on the outside.