Not many South Africans will forget the day that president Jacob Zuma fired former finance minister Nhlanhla Nene, and briefly replaced him with a then-unknown ANC back-bencher, Des van Rooyen.
That day was a year ago, and the country continues to feel its effects, whether it be staving off ratings agency downgrades, ‘attacks’ on the rand, or battles in Parliament.
While Zuma scandals are not new, it was an ill-advised move to fire Nene, that caused South Africa’s economy to tank, wiping off as much as R500 billion from the markets.
Zuma ultimately back-tracked on the appointment of van Rooyen – after four days – re-appointing a familiar face – Pravin Gordhan.
But the damage had been done: businesses, investors, politicians and the country’s citizens at large now had their eyes fixated on the president, and were watching his every move.
Here is how the year has gone for South Africa’s embattled leader:
January – NeneGate Fallout
- January was a tough start for the president, who faced calls for his resignation over the firing on Nhlanhla Nene (a call which would not subside for the duration of the entire year).
- A massive banner stating “ZUMA MUST FALL” was erected in Cape Town by an unnamed private group, which was ultimately torn down by ANC supporters. Zuma’s supporters also absolved him of any wrongdoing in the NeneGate saga, saying that the economy did not hinge on the words and actions of one man.
- It was around this time that officials in government started raising questions about the president’s relationship with the Gupta family – and the opposition parties proposed a motion of no confidence in Zuma be debated in Parliament.
February – Nkandla scandal redux
- February marked another surprising move for president Zuma: he offered to pay back the money for the drawn-out Nkandla saga ahead of the matter heading to the Constitutional Court that month. He offered to pay back any amount that was determined by an independent and impartial source.
- Opposition parties outright rejected the offer, determined to see the president in court. Zuma’s lawyers eventually conceded in court that the president was wrong, that the Public Protector’s report on the Nkandla matter was biding, and that the president would pay back the money.
- The Constitutional Court ruled that Zuma violated his oath of office by failing to act on the report – and also dragged all the MPs who had absolved the president of wrongdoing.
- At this point, the Hawks’ case against new finance minister Pravin Gordhan over the so-called “rogue unit” started warming up – with murmurings of Zuma’s involvement.
March – State capture blowout
- In early March, Zuma survived the first motion of no confidence. However, this was followed by the first major political ‘nuke’ that would go on to dominate headlines for the rest of the year: state capture.
- On 16 March, deputy finance minister Mcebisi Jonas revealed that he was approached by president Zuma’s close friends, the Gupta family, who offered him the position of finance minister ahead of Nene being fired. The claims, and the family’s proximity to the president and the assumption of his powers, put the president in a very difficult position.
- The Gupta family used its media outlets to paint a picture of conspiracy to get Zuma out of office. Zuma distanced himself from anything Gupta-related, while the ANC rallied behind him.
April – An ANC divided
- April began with president Zuma apologising to South Africa – as ordered by the Constitutional Court – for the Nkandla matter, as ANC members old and current started speaking out against him. Zuma faced calls to step down from previous ANC MPs, including Trevor Manuel, while some branched of the party – Gauteng in particular – also suggested that he should be recalled or suspended, pending an investigation.
- Fired finance minister Nhlanhla Nene also revealed that the BRICS Bank job he was promised by Zuma did not exist – an indication that the president had lied to the nation.
- The Guptas and the president’s son who does business with them, tried to mitigate the fallout over state capture claims, and resigned from director positions at their companies that do business with government.
- To cap off a terrible month for the president, the North Gauteng High Court said the decision to drop 783 charges of fraud and corruption against him was irrational, and that the National Prosecuting Authority should reinstate them.
May – Connecting the dots
- The month of May brought about retrospection and analysis of the events that had taken place in the preceding months. Political analysts were out in full force connecting the dots between Zuma and the Guptas and his decision to sack Nene.
- Lines were also then drawn between Zuma’s preferred finance minister, Des van Rooyen, and his relationship with the Gupta family, and the various ties to state-owned companies (SAA, Eskom, Denel) – and most importantly, South Africa’s R1 trillion nuclear plans, through which all involved could get very rich.
- It was at this time that the narrative that Zuma was hell-bent on getting Pravin Gordhan out of Treasury started to gain traction.
- The ANC said there was no state capture, dismissed reports, and said it was going to focus on the upcoming local elections.
June – Riots in the streets
- Zuma suffered two blows in June – the first was being ordered to pay back R7.8 million for the non-security upgrades to Nkandla, and the second was losing his bid to appeal the High Court ruling that he should face 783 charges of corruption.
- However, the most reflective problem Zuma faced in June was the widening gap within the ANC’s ranks. While the ANC leadership continued to put up a united front, supporters were not as pliable. Unrest over political leadership in Tshwane spilled onto the streets, resulting in acts of violence and destruction.
- Citizens were expressing displeasure with the ANC’s selected mayoral candidate ahead of the 2016 elections, which, according to analysts, showed how divided the ANC was becoming, and how the party’s (Zuma’s) policy of ‘jobs for friends’ was causing rifts.
July – Elections in sight
- July was a big campaign month ahead of the elections, and much of it was spent by the ANC and Zuma trying to paint the previous six months of scandal in a different light. Specifically, the message to South Africans was to disregard all that had happened, and to ignore anyone who said anything was Zuma’s fault.
- However, not all within the ANC were toeing the party line, with the ANC in Gauteng admitting that the president was a problem that could not simply be ignored.
- Opposition parties used the campaigning month to hammer Zuma – from state capture to NeneGate – while the president shrugged it off as propaganda.
August – the ANC’s big election loss
- The ANC’s ploy did not work, and the party lost three major metropolitan areas to the opposition (with the DA leading in Tshwane, Nelson Mandela Bay and Joburg, with the help of the EFF), and losing support at the polls.
- The ANC admitted that it was weak leadership that led to the loss, and singled out Zuma as a problem, but also took collective responsibility for the poor election results.
- It was at this point that several ANC members and former officials had had enough and spoke out, calling for Zuma to resign. While the ANC put up a united front, behind closed doors, insiders revealed growing disdain for Zuma.
September – Rumbling gets louder
- People from all sectors started speaking out against Zuma more and more, with those who support him often facing the same level of criticism.
- Zuma’s competency as president was again questioned amid widespread student protests – all while he continued to shrug off calls for him to resign.
- Following numerous calls for an early elective conference to be held – to elect new ANC leadership – was rejected, Zuma was deemed safe for at least one more year.
October – State capture, part 2
- In October, Zuma tried to block the release of the Public Protector’s report into state capture, which implicated him in the hijacking of government processes by business interests – his friends, the Guptas.
- The president’s bid to block the report’s release was joined by other implicated ministers, including Zuma’s preferred finance minister, Des van Rooyen. Zuma, van Rooyen and mining minister Mosebenzi Zwane were successful in blocking the report’s release.
- The Hawks’ case against finance minister Pravin Gordhan also hit its first climax, with the the National Prosecuting Authority revealing that it would be pursuing charges of fraud against the minister. This was widely seen as a vital move for Zuma to have the basis to remove Gordhan from National Treasury.
- The Supreme Court of Appeal, meanwhile, wanted answers on Zuma’s 783 corruption charges, and wanted the president’s legal team to argue in open court why he should not face them.
November – It all comes crashing down
- Faced with the prospect of yet another failed court bid, Zuma’s legal team withdrew the application to have the state capture report blocked from release – and within hours it was out in the public domain.
- The report was damning – but made no adverse findings against the president. However, transcripts contained within the report showed that Zuma actively frustrated the Public Protector’s investigation, refusing to answer questions, and recommending that she leave the matter for her successor.
- A further blow for Zuma (if the conspiracy allegations are true), was that the fraud charges against Gordhan were dropped, as evidence turned up that would have buried the case in court. The month also saw the country’s nuclear plans put on ice.
- Zuma faced his second motion of no confidence in November, which was shot down by the ANC. However, more members of the ANC, including the party’s chief whip Jackson Mthembu, started speaking out against Zuma.
- 101 ANC stalwarts – former officials and leaders of the movement – came out with an open letter to the party’s current leadership raising concerns over how the party had been handling things, including its leadership crisis. While there were no clear calls for Zuma to resign, it was implied that change was needed.
- At the end of the month, Zuma faced an unprecedented ambush at the ANC’s National Executive Committee meeting, where ANC MPs proposed that he step down. After an extended meeting, the party ‘reached consensus’ that Zuma would stay – but for many, the fact it was up for debate at all laid the party’s divisions bare, showing that all was not well within Zuma’s ANC.
December – Battered but still standing
Ratings agencies have given the country the ‘all clear’ despite the lingering volatility of the political landscape, and analysts have expressed confidence that a repeat of 9/12 2015 won’t be on the cards again this year.
What is still in play that could change things:
- Zuma is defiant on the state capture saga, and will challenge the Public Protector’s report in court;
- The Hawks and the NPA are still pursuing possible charges against Pravin Gordhan relating to the ‘rogue unit’;
- The NPA is still challenging the ruling that 783 charges of corruption be reinstated against Zuma; and
- Unease still lingers over Zuma’s position on those who openly opposed him – and the possibility of another cabinet reshuffle cannot be ruled out
In the end, analysts predict that president Zuma will likely leave 2016 still standing, but certainly not unscathed. He will likely see out his presidency to 2018, before the next leader of the ANC (to be determined in December 2017) takes over.
However, Zuma’s battered legacy may have a significant impact on who that leader may be.