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Opinion: Jacob Zuma's silent South African coup

Staecker Claus Kommentarbild App
Claus Stäcker
April 4, 2017

Google "coup" and you'll find entries for Venezuela or Turkey. You are unlikely to encounter South Africa. Yet there is no better description of Zuma's midnight cabinet reshuffle, says Claus Stäcker.

Südafrika Jacob Zuma
Image: Getty Images/P.Foley

President Jacob Zuma's Friday night cabinet overhaul went almost unnoticed by the world's media. It deserved more attention because it was nothing less than the final act in a silent coup.

Zuma first brought the ruling African National Congress (ANC) and its absolute majority under his control. The State Capture report, drawn up by former Public Protector (ombudswoman) Thulisile Madonsela, described in detail how Zuma's system of corruption has spread through all echelons of the executive and the legislature. The sacking of respected finance minister Pravin Gordhan and his equally upstanding deputy Mcebisi Jonas was the final phase in Zuma's drive for total control. The aim is to further the interests of the dubious business empire of the Gupta family, his own relations, his scores of acolytes and also to thwart the work of state prosecutors.           

Biggest challenge of the post-Mandela-era

Zuma no longer cares what his rivals inside the ANC, his ministers, struggle veterans, predecessors, Constitutional Court judges, civil society, industry, investors, trade unions or academics think of him. He is oblivious to the opinions of the opposition or of ordinary people. The concentration of power in Zuma's hands is alarming and has become a test of the resilience of South Africa's democracy. Is the South African state about to implode?

The ANC is incapable of reforming itself. The upright, principled, "good" comrades, who undoubtedly still exist, either secretly vote for the opposition or remain prisoners of their own ideology.

Picture of  Claus Stäcker
Claus Stäcker is the head of DW's Africa program

Zuma's cabinet reshuffle won't only cost the South African state millions in ministerial pensions and other benefits. It also deprives the country of expertise, sacrifices efficiency and is a waste of time. It puts loyalty above professional competence. It rewards the opportunist who can't do the job and punishes the rival who can, such as heavyweight Pravin Gordhan and white minister of tourism Derek Haenkom, who found the courage to oppose Zuma.

South Africa's judiciary, media and civil society - and even the economy - have shown themselves to be remarkably robust. But they now appear to be losing their sense of orientation with every month that passes with Zuma still in power.

There is no plan for the removal of President Jacob Zuma. All that has happened so far is that the speaker of parliament Baleka Mbete cut short an official visit to Bangladesh  and returned home on Sunday to consider an opposition request for a no-confidence motion to be held, if possible, during a special session of parliament .

ANC comrades at the crossroads

But Mbete does not count among Zuma's opponents and any momentum for change dwindles with every passing day. Vice president Cyril Ramaphosa has publicly criticized the reshuffle, but he stopped short of handing in his resignation. This was the desperate attempt of one of Zuma's critics to try and prevent the worst without retreating from the corridors of power.  ANC supporters are debating whether it is legitimate to depose their own leader and back the opposition within their much-vaunted "national, democratic revolution." It  most certainly is legitimate. The most valuable possessions of any nation - the constitution, the state, democracy - are in jeopardy.

The remaining "good" comrades should back the opposition in the National Assembly. With their votes they could secure themselves a place in South Africa's history books. Seventy out of 249 ANC votes would be needed to topple Zuma.

Efforts to mobilize opposition to Zuma were launched at the weekend. Those who want change wear black. This coming Friday a national day of protest is scheduled to take place. The effectiveness of this campaign and the consciences of a number of principled ANC lawmakers will determine how long Zuma's unhappy reign continues. The revolution, to which a few misty-eyed ANC supporters still refer, turned corrupt a long time ago. History shows that revolutions are never the property of one particular party. They belong to the people and can often take unexpected twists and turns.          

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Staecker Claus Kommentarbild App
Claus Stäcker Head of the Africa services with a keen focus on politics, demography and generational conflict@ClausStaecker
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