Jacob Zuma’s resignation as South Africa’s president wasn’t exactly a surprise. The bigger question may be: Why did it took so long?
During his long political career, Zuma has been roiled by corruption scandals, including:
- In 2014, Zuma was accused of benefiting from $24 million in taxpayer money spent on “security upgrades” made to his rural residence, including a swimming pool and cattle pen.
- He was found liable for 800 counts of corruption related to accusations that he accepted bribes for arms deals in the 1990s.
- An allegedly corrupt relationship with a wealthy family had turned into a rolling multiyear scandal dubbed “Guptagate.”
The allegations went far further than corruption. In 2006, he was put on trial in the alleged rape of a 31-year-old HIV-positive daughter of a friend. While defending his innocence, saying the sex was consensual, he left health experts aghast when he said the intercourse was unprotected but that he had showered afterward to avoid HIV transmission. Though he was acquitted, many still have their doubts — including South Africa’s new president, Cyril Ramaphosa, who last year said he believed Zuma’s late accuser.
More broadly, Zuma had presided over an era of increasing economic inequality, with high unemployment and extreme poverty in the country and international rating agencies downgrading South Africa’s credit rating to junk. And yet, Zuma survived multiple attempts to force him out from office, even when his approval rating dropped to just 20 percent.
How was an unpopular politician accused of rape and corruption able to survive in South Africa for so long? There are many reasons, but one factor is South Africa’s unusual electoral system and the party dynamics that interplay with it.
How South Africa’s political system kept Zuma in office
South Africa’s current constitution was drawn up in 1994, as the country emerged from years of white dominance for its first nonracial elections. After it was implemented in 1997, the constitution changed the way South Africans voted for their politicians in a significant way.
In the apartheid-era, the country’s National Assembly used a first-past-the-post system, as used in the British Parliament: Voters in different geographical constituencies would vote for different candidates, and whichever candidate had the most votes would represent that constituency. Such systems tend to lead to two dominant parties, and it often results in parties gaining a majority of seats in parliament without a majority of votes. Some critics have noted that in South Africa, it may have helped the pro-apartheid National Party.
In 1994, politicians opted to change to a closed-party-list proportional system. Under this system, South Africans would vote for a party rather than a candidate; then seats in parliament would be apportioned, using a private list drawn up by each party, to reflect the proportion of popular vote the parties won. In a quirk, the head of state, the president, would not be voted for directly, but instead would be an MP selected by parliament. As such, he or she would be both head of state and head of government.
It’s an unusual system, but it has its strengths. The parliament is a good representation of the politics of the country. The president has significant powers of appointment and can veto bills, but the National Assembly can act as a check on his power. Unlike in the United States, for example, South Africa’s legislature can remove the president from office for any reason it sees fit.
What you might expect from such a system is political instability: Proportional representation systems can often result in a fractured political landscape, with smaller parties forming coalition governments for legislative majorities — a situation you often see in European nations like the Netherlands. With the South African president reliant on parliament’s approval, the government would seem to be even more unstable.
But in South Africa, things didn’t work out that way. The African National Congress, the famous liberation movement and party of Nelson Mandela, has proved remarkably popular in the post-apartheid era. Since 1994, the party has consistently won more than 60 percent of the popular vote and been rewarded with overwhelming majorities in the legislature.
“What has made our system work less well is perhaps the political dynamic and not the constitutional arrangement,” Pierre De Vos, a professor of constitutional law at the University of Cape Town, said of the ANC’s political dominance. “This means the party leader had a lot of leeway to do as he wished as the party was unlikely to turn against him.”
What Zuma’s ouster means for South African politics
Zuma was long a controversial president and there have been plenty of attempts from the National Assembly to oust him in recent years: eight in total. The problem was that those efforts came from opposition parties; few ANC MPs would break party ranks to go against Zuma.
The situation highlighted the fact that South African politicians were more beholden to their parties than voters, due to the closed party list system.
The result was a lack of accountability, Judith February, a senior research associate at the Institute for Security Studies and advocate for reform, wrote last year. “The party owns the seat and thus has the ultimate influence over an MP,” February noted, pointing out that ANC politicians who called for Zuma’s removal, such as Makhosi Khoza, would end up pushed out.
These problems went beyond parliament, said Cathleen Powell, an associate professor in law at the University of Cape Town. Zuma had set up patronage networks that cemented his power, she said, while in many small towns the government, intertwined with the ANC, was the only major employer. “For a lot of people being in good standing with the ANC becomes a passport to a job and career,” Powell said.
As South Africans don’t vote directly for a local politician or the president, their only way of voicing their disapproval with Zuma’s ever-growing list of scandals was by voting against the ANC — something hard to imagine, given the party’s history and dominance. Eventually, though, Zuma’s antics caught up with the party, leading it to shocking losses in ANC strongholds during municipal elections in 2016.
But with national elections coming next year and Zuma’s constitutionally-restricted two terms in office coming to a close, many in the party viewed him as too big a liability for the ANC’s future and the move to replace him gained traction. When Zuma tried to install his ex-wife, Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, as ANC leader in December, she lost to Ramaphosa, a wealthy businessman who had campaigned against corruption.
Zuma’s effort to extend his time in office by proxy was the final straw for many ANC members. But even after the ANC formally recalled him on Tuesday, he refused to step down. Zuma finally resigned as president on Wednesday, after facing a humiliating vote of no-confidence in the National Assembly.
For critics, the checks and balances have finally kicked in — albeit far too late. “Ultimately we have been saved by the constitution, the presidential term limits it prescribes, and the independence of the judiciary,” said Roger Southall, emeritus professor in sociology at the University of the Witwatersrand. “Plus the capacity of ANC politicians to turn to the incoming patron and to abandon the old one!”
Some analysts are now calling for an open party list system, in which voters could at least see the parties’ National Assembly candidates, if not possibly rank them in order of preference. Others have called for the ANC to reform its internal electoral systems, given how much sway the party still has over top appointments
But does Zuma’s ouster after years of scandals mean South Africa will get real electoral reform? Perhaps not. After almost a decade of Zuma in power, South Africa is facing numerous crises that need more immediate attention. (After years of drought, Cape Town, South Africa’s coastal metropolis of 4 million, is about to run out of water.)
“I think we’re all in a little bubble of hope,” Powell said of Ramaphosa. However, she added of electoral reform: “Quite frankly I find it unlikely given how many other things he has to do.”
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