Looking at South Africa’s “Zexit” Moment

South African wit is sometimes at its best during tragedies or when dark clouds abound, so it was that the wits had a field day during Jacob Zuma’s tenure and long-sought exit from the South African Presidency on 14 February 2018.

Playing on the Portuguese Marxist revolutionary slogan “A luta continua” (The struggle continues), someone adapted this to read “A looter continua!” This catchphrase fittingly encapsulates the plunder of South Africa’s wealth which characterised Zuma’s two-term stint as head of state. Also bandied about were “Zexit,” “Zuptagate” and “Guptagate” which played on the word “Gupta,” the hated family name of those at the center of the kleptocracy which had South Africa on its knees for the major part of Zuma’s reign. According to Wikipedia, this period culminated in the loss to the South African economy of approximately $83 billion!

Zuma could never lay claim to statesmanship since his initial election in 2009 to the highest office was already clouded by innumerable charges of fraud and worse. However, his “liberation struggle” credentials were impeccable, having honed his skills in the African National Congress-in-exile intelligence network. Thus the “struggle” continued, not for the uplifting of millions of needy South Africans out of poverty, but to grab the vital organs and institutions of the State and get ahold of the cookie jar. Tapping into a cynical old adage “It’s our turn to feed,” this phenomenon found expression in the very descriptive notion of “State capture”—a word which found its way into the country’s daily political lexicon.

“State capture” is described by Wikipedia as “a type of systemic political corruption in which private interests significantly influence a State’s decision-making processes to their own advantage. … Specifically, it was applied to situations where small corrupt groups used their influence over government officials to appropriate government decision making in order to strengthen their own economic positions.”

Enter the loathed brothers Gupta…

Following a cunning strategy, this politically corrupt family connived, wheedled, bribed and bullied their way into the corridors of power, amassing wealth and sufficient power to influence government—even deciding on Cabinet appointments!

Over the last few years all the shenanigans and dirty tricks encompassing “State capture” have found their way into a number of revealing books, the most recent of which has really taken the country by storm. The President’s Keepers – Those Keeping Zuma in Power and Out of Prison reads like a classic spy novel. The allegations, twists, webs, betrayals and sheer audacity conjure up a swamp so deep and foul as to make it almost impossible to give an adequate overview.

A news report from local paper City Press sums up the charge sheet and music that Zuma has for years tried to keep at bay… “A team of five senior prosecutors unanimously recommended on Friday 23rd February 2018, that Zuma face all charges that were previously withdrawn against him. Zuma is expected to face 18 charges of corruption, money laundering and racketeering originating from 783 questionable payments he received… This could be the first of several legal battles faced by Zuma. He is expected to be the central focus of an upcoming commission of inquiry into state capture… The team of prosecutors has been working round the clock, putting together an indictment detailing the charges that Zuma and his co-accused will finally face after years of protracted legal wrangling.”

A couple of excerpts from the book will suffice to give an insight into the rot that saw South Africa descend into darkness where the corrupt and greedy, fraudsters, smugglers and racketeers of every ilk milked the State institutions while the authorities either aided and abetted, or looked the other way.

Johan Booysen was the top man in The Hawks (the very effective special crimes unit) in the state of Natal. He, like many others forced from office, whose honesty and dedication were “inconvenient”, also wrote a book detailing his experiences. His sorry saga is sketched in The President’s Keepers. The book relates that “The story of Johan Wessel Booysen is an example of how the government’s law enforcement agencies have been disembowelled to guard the politically connected cronies of our rulers. The President’s keepers drove Booysen from his office, leaked a docket to discredit him and laid trumped-up charges against him.”

The same book quotes Daily Maverick’s Mandy Wiener: “Johan Booysen has that aura about him…of a government employee who has been sent to hell and back, worn down by years of attempts to erode their resolve, but has nevertheless remained committed, fiercely determined and stoically principled.”

It is no wonder the nation’s murder rate tops 50 people a day, to say nothing of rampant gangsterism, home robberies, cash heists and hijackings.

In the peculiar political philosophy and jargon of the African National Congress (ANC), a president is simply a “deployee” of the organisation, whose usefulness as a “faithful cadre” depends on the dispositions of the National Executive Committee (NEC), the ultimate “power” behind the scenes. The precedent of “recalling” a sitting President had already been established with the removal of President Thabo Mbeki from office in 2008.

As 2017 rolled on, the issues had become hot and the position of the President shaky and untenable. Zuma was smothered under many allegations of graft, mismanagement, and ineptitude. Calls for his head were becoming increasingly strident.

In the midst of this, the long awaited five-yearly ANC Elective Conference kicked off in December with the factions battling for the prime slot—president of the ANC—and therefore automatic heir to the country’s presidency. The two squaring up in the ring were Cyril Ramaphosa and Zuma’s ex-wife, Nkosazana Dlamini Zuma.

The country held its breath, knowing full well that the consequence of a Zuma-clone clinching the top spot would mark the country’s descent into complete chaos and a rogue state. It was happily not to be—although, unbelievably, the contest was close and bitter.

Ramaphosa, biding his time for many years as the faithful deputy president, was newly energised in his election, eager to take the throne and return the country to a semblance of order. He tried his utmost to convince the “Big Man” to go quietly into the night. The NEC did its bit “recalling” him, that he might be elsewhere “deployed”!

Jacob Zuma, employing every trick and subterfuge, refused to budge, not believing that his time was up. It was only at the eleventh hour, just before Parliament called for a “no confidence” vote, that the man finally took his cue to go! It was Ash Wednesday and Saint Valentine’s Day—a bitter-sweet moment!

His resignation sent waves of joy across the land. This marked South Africa’s “Zexit” moment—and not a moment too soon. The damage, however, is deep and will be felt for many years, as ably concluded in the quoted book, “Perhaps the greatest wound that Zuma has inflicted upon our Republic is that he has buried decency and accountability under rubbish heaps of sleaze and corruption.”

The sheer scope and depth of this dirty saga, its far reaching tentacles, including even a role for gun-runners, will put many a spy thriller to shame.

In the meantime, South African society has emerged from a long winter of discontent. The governing ANC, while to a man embracing the new leadership, must bear full responsibility for maintaining the status quo throughout this chilly season. The ruling party, except for a few courageous voices, consistently ignored the pleadings of civil society. It vilified the opposition watchdogs and slavishly backed the discredited leader—enabling him to survive successive annual motions of no confidence.

Now the major question facing the nation is: will it be “business as usual”, or will President Ramaphosa manage to get the country on its feet again?

– By Bernard Tuffin

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