- - Thursday, February 15, 2018


This week marked the 28th anniversary of the release of Nelson Mandela from prison. On Wednesday, one of Mr. Mandela’s prison neighbors at Robben Island, Jacob Zuma, resigned as president of the country a year short of the term to which he was duly elected.

“Resigned” is actually too gentle a word for what happened to him. Mr. Zuma was actually thrown out after weeks of resisting, and by his onetime allies. The South African media, like the media everywhere, always in pursuit of a cliche, calls it a “Zexit.”

The sacking, seen from his distance, was utterly justified. Under his nine years of leadership, both Mr. Zuma’s country and the political party that he represented, the African National Congress founded by Mr. Mandela, suffered a long, slow decline. It was a sad come-down for a political party — and a country — that was once a prosperous leader among nations, which represented the dreams of millions for a racially fair, prosperous nation freed from the repression of apartheid.

Mr. Zuma’s record as president was deeply disappointing. “Criminal” might be more accurate. The opposition Democratic Alliance, exulting in his ouster, put it with partisan zeal: “Jacob Zuma did untold harm to our country. More people are unemployed than ever before, and more people live in poverty than when he came into office. On his watch, corruption has been allowed to flourish to the point of nearly destroying our country and completely capturing the state and the prosecution system.” Harsh, but unarguable.

Mr. Zuma first stepped into hot water over his relationship with the Guptas, a prosperous South African family of Indian origin, owners of business interests that sprawl across the country. The Guptas appear to have milked their relationship with Mr. Zuma and his government in imaginatively corrupt ways. It was little less than the capture of the state by private business. London’s Financial Times reported last year that investigators with a sure knowledge and understanding of the financial web around the Guptas “estimate that the family has earned just over $2 billion from their various lines of business facilitated by connections to the state.”

Many of these transactions were measured in dollars well above market rate. South African prosecutors raided properties of the Gupta family just this week, with a dawn strike by an elite police unit, the Directorate for Primary Crime Investigation, popularly called the Hawks.

The Hawks made three arrests on allegations that the Gupta family used their links to the president to win contracts with the government and to influence appointments to the Zuma cabinet. This put the pressure on Mr. Zuma to resign at the tipping point.

The Financial Times cited findings that Mr. Zuma failed to submit tax returns during his presidency and that he dismantled the unit within the tax office that was investigating his business interests. Well-known cigarette smugglers have been linked to the Zuma family. Mr. Zuma, according to investigators, attempted to purge the security and prosecutorial services of everyone whom the president thought would look closely into his affairs. Under Mr. Zuma’s watch, the economy stagnated and poverty rose, even as economies in some other developing countries boomed.

Mr. Zuma, who hadn’t said much about the accusations swirling about him, finally spoke up this week to say that efforts to do him in were “very unfair,” that others were trying to persecute him. The ruling African National Congress, he said, had not followed proper procedures. “I need to be furnished [evidence] on what I’ve done. What is this hurry?”

The investigators following “procedures” moved swiftly. “We’re viewing this in a very serious light,” said a spokesman for the pursuing Hawks. “We’re not playing around in terms of making sure that those who are responsible [take] responsibility for it.

The good news is that Mr. Zuma was forced out by his own parliamentary party and colleagues in the government who know him best. The party had threatened to hold a vote of no confidence, and that is apparently what finally forced his resignation. This suggests that the party is getting serious about policing itself.

The new president, Cyril Ramaphosa, will have his hands full cleaning up the African National Congress, the only party that has governed South Africa since the revolution, and which has enabled the government’s institutions to rot. If he doesn’t hit the ground running, he may soon face his own “Rexit.”

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