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The Dartmouth
May 20, 2024 | Latest Issue
The Dartmouth

Zehner: The Laughing President

Jacob Zuma damaged South Africa; the country should be glad he is gone.

“[Taking a shower] would [minimize] the risk of contracting the disease” — such was the advice for dealing with HIV and AIDS prescribed by Jacob Zuma before his accession to the presidency of South Africa in 2009. The ignorance accompanying the comment should have been warning enough that Zuma would prove to be an incompetent leader during his presidency. However, it was not. Now, as of Feb. 14, Zuma’s almost decade-long stint as president has come to an end. Under his leadership, South Africa has been devastated, and the post-Apartheid dream of the “rainbow nation” has been severely threatened. The general unease surrounding Zuma’s accession to office in 2009 has proved to have been merited.

Despite his populist calls for “radical economic transformation,” mostly regarding the black lower classes, Zuma, in reality, oversaw a drastic decline in South Africa’s economic performance. A tenth of the country now owns over 90 percent of its wealth. This was partly helped by an unemployment rate surpassing 25 percent. At the end of 2016, the South African economy was roughly the same size as it had been in 2009; twice during Zuma’s tenure, in 2009 and 2017, the economy went into recession. In addition, the president’s interactions with the finance ministry were almost a caricature. Zuma unexpectedly ousted the competent finance minister Nhlanhla Nene, only to eject his newly-appointed successor within the space of a week, causing a sudden drop in the value of South Africa’s currency, the rand.

It appeared that throughout his term, Zuma prioritized political populism over sound economic management. This was evident in his decision to eliminate fees for higher education, which will cost an estimated R15 to R50 million each year, only adding to public debt. In aggregate, South Africa’s debt tripled over the length of Zuma’s two terms, reaching R790 million in the second quarter of 2017. And, due to poor governance, the country’s debt was downgraded to junk status by all but one international rating agency.

Beyond the realm of economics, educational quality has dipped, with an Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development league table placing the South African education system at 75th out of 76 countries. And the new disarray of the health system recently became apparent with the deaths of 143 mentally ill patients who died of malnourishment and thirst after being moved into unregulated care homes.

While economic growth has been slow, corruption has reached heretofore unseen levels within post-Apartheid South Africa. “State capture” has become a household term, referring specifically to the insidious influence of the Gupta family on Zuma and his government. The Guptas, a wealthy Indian family with substantial business interests in South Africa, have been accused of influencing the designation and dismissal of various government ministers. Evidence suggests that Mcebisi Jonas, the former deputy finance minister, was offered R600 million by the family to take up the role of finance minister, so long as he altered the ministry’s personnel, ostensibly to be more conducive to the Gupta’s interests. It also seems likely that the firing of finance minister Pravin Gordhan in 2017 was brought on by his public clashes with the Gupta family. Also, millions of dollars worth of public funds designed to support business in the Vrede Farm project were instead funneled into accounts of Atul Gupta, despite the fact that he had provided no services to the project. It is thought that $2.6 million dollars of the money was spent on the wedding of Gupta’s niece.

Zuma was himself directly involved in heavy-handed corruption. This was exemplified in the absurd case of Zuma’s Nkandla estate. The president expropriated $23 million worth of public funds in order to renovate his private residence in the province of KwaZulu-Natal under the auspices of a constitutionally-sanctioned security upgrade. However, the new “security” features installed included a swimming pool, a visitors center, a cattle enclosure and an amphitheater. Fortunately the independence of the South African court system ensured that Zuma was eventually obligated to pay back the embezzled funds, but the incident nonetheless demonstrates the unlawful extension of executive authority that Zuma attempted.

Zuma has left behind a South Africa that is economically stagnant, at its most racially divided in decades and wracked by corruption. Politician and former anti-apartheid activist Cyril Ramaphosa has inherited Zuma’s tortuous legacy. Now, he must find ways to both reunite the African National Congress and the country as a whole. However, the country remains optimistic. Perhaps the new president will be the long-awaited spiritual successor to the late Nelson Mandela. Whether or not this proves to be the case, South Africans can be confident that Ramaphosa will be a more competent leader than Zuma was. They can breathe a sigh of relief that a decade of mismanagement has come to an end.

South Africa should be happy to say good riddance to the president whose middle name is aptly “Gedleyihlekisa,” the isiZulu term for someone who “smiles while causing you harm.”