Judgment Before the Fall

South African President Jacob Zuma suffered a stinging rebuke yesterday from the country’s highest court. In a sweeping and unanimous 53-page judgment unprecedented in the new democracy, the ruling amounted to a stunning repudiation of South Africa’s fourth chief executive since the end of apartheid and Nelson Mandela’s election as president in 1994. “Public office-bearers ignore their constitutional obligations at their peril,” Chief Justice Mogoeng Mogoeng said in remarks broadcast live on radio and television. The event amounted to a national teach-in on the system of checks and balances built into the 1994 Constitution. “Constitutionalism, accountability, and the rule of law constitute the sharp and mighty sword that stands ready to chop the ugly head of impunity off its stiffened neck,” Mogoeng said.

In a packed, rapt chamber of the Constitutional Court, the chief justice also faulted the National Assembly for having failed to curb executive overreach, even as he noted limits on the power of the judiciary—including his own apex court—to intervene in the affairs of the other co-equal branches. By the time Mogoeng was done, however, there wasn’t any question about whose neck had been forcefully placed on the block. President Zuma “failed to uphold, defend and respect the Constitution as the supreme law of the land,” the chief justice announced, flanked by somber-looking colleagues. When the justices stood, bowed, and retreated, there was tentative applause.

The case against Zuma, filed by opposition parties last year, centered on the president’s response to a report delivered in 2014 from the Public Protector, Thuli Madonsela. Established under the post-apartheid Constitution as an independent, freewheeling public ombudsperson, her office had investigated charges that the president was unduly enriched though publicly funded construction at his homestead in Nkandla, in rural KwaZulu-Natal province. Out of a massive budget of 246 million rand ($16.7 million at current exchange rates), spent supposedly for security upgrades, the public protector pinpointed five especially suspicious expenditures, including construction of a swimming pool, visitor’s center, cattle enclosure, chicken run, and amphitheater. When the chief justice reviewed this part of the case, he looked a little startled each time he said “swimming pool” and “chicken run.” The public protector had dubbed these as unjustifiable uses of public money and ordered the president to repay that portion of the work on his private residence.

Instead of complying with her order, however, the president commissioned a separate investigation by his own police minister, who, not surprisingly, absolved him of any impropriety or duty to pay back the funds. The governing African National Congress then used its majority in the national legislature to stymie any meaningful further investigation, improperly neutralizing the effect of a legal order, the Constitutional Court ruled. The public protector was also subjected to a highly personal vilification campaign by government and party officials and investigations by elite police agencies for doing what the court found had been her constitutionally obligated duty.

Chief Justice Mogoeng also scored National Assembly officials for failing in their constitutional duty to help safeguard the independence of the public protector. He pointed out that the office had been established as a key bulwark in the fight against “corruption, unlawful enrichment, prejudice and impropriety in state affairs and for the betterment of good governance.” If the president and legislature disagreed with Public Protector Madonsela, the chief justice pointed out, they could have challenged her in court, but they could not simply ignore her orders, as if President Zuma were above the law.

By the time the chief justice finished reading the judgment, it was clear that the president had suffered a colossal political defeat, perhaps even a mortal one. The investigation of the public protector had been backed in every important respect by the highest court in the land. The Constitutional Court instructed the National Treasury to come up with an estimate of how much the president would be required to refund the government and set a firm deadline for repayment.

In some respects, this is now the least of Zuma’s worries. The Nkandla case, after all, only underscored a pattern of lapses by this scandal-prone head of state. An emergency meeting of top leaders of the governing ANC was underway at the president’s residence in Pretoria after the court decision. As the meeting ground on, it seemed increasingly likely that President Zuma would fall.

The calls for him to step down had been growing louder and more insistent ever since last December. First, there had been mass mobilizations against him in major cities, followed by a raucous rebellion on the floor of the National Assembly when he tried, haltingly, to deliver his State of the Nation address in February. The decision yesterday by the Constitutional Court seemed to ring-fence the president after a four-month accumulation of frustrations. All of the allegations against him that had been raised first in the streets—lack of accountability, undue personal enrichment, disregard for limits on his power—were now ingrained in the country’s legal history.

Public Clamor About Corruption

When I flew back to Johannesburg last December after a six-month absence, I witnessed something unprecedented—mass organizing across racial and class lines against a democratically elected president. Unite Against Corruption, a new multiracial civic group of trade unionists, health activists, and NGOs, had sprung up. Its organizers were focused exclusively on controversies over misuse of public funds. In the middle of December, on short notice, the new organization tested its public support by endorsing a call for mass demonstrations against President Zuma in response to his most serious recent misstep.

On the evening of December 9, the president fired his popular minister of finance and replaced him with a failed mayor of a small municipality whose main qualification seemed to be his pliancy. The move fanned widespread speculation that the departing minister was sacked for drawing the line against unnecessary public expenditures and interfering with possible sweetheart deals for Zuma’s friends and allies.

Foreign investors reacted swiftly, pulling away from an economy already teetering on the edge of recession. Capital—small, medium, and large—went on strike. South Africa’s currency suffered a steep slide and business confidence fell to its lowest level since before the 1994 election. Four days later, on the following Sunday, the president fired his own new appointee, managing to appear both dodgy and autocratic but also weak-kneed. zumageddon read one hyperbolic headline. Even the president’s top economic advisers began to worry that South Africa could slide into a deadly spiral, like Greece.

That’s when Unite Against Corruption encouraged people to turn out for marches in five major cities—Port Elizabeth, Tswane (Pretoria), Cape Town, Durban, and Johannesburg—on Reconciliation Day, a holiday. The crowd I came across that morning on the north side of Nelson Mandela Bridge in Johannesburg sounded anything but conciliatory. Black demonstrators chanted, “Phansi, Zuma! Phansi!” (Down with Zuma) as paler-skinned, Zulu-challenged protesters hoisted a sign: no reconciliation with corruption, muttering that they were gatvol, which means “fed up” in Afrikaans.

I hadn’t heard the words phansi and gatvol thrown around quite so liberally since 2007, when masses of people mobilized around Zuma’s rise to power and President Mbeki was hounded from office. Now resentment toward the current president was running up the voltage high enough that it could be expressed fiercely in Afrikaans, Zulu, and English, three of the country’s 11 official languages.

Like everything else in South Africa, protest marches have usually been color-coded. ANC officials initially dismissed the call for demonstrations against their president as expressions of disgruntled, reactionary whites or, alternately, part of a shadowy conspiracy by reactionary forces in business.

Organizers of the protest in Johannesburg did everything they could to anticipate and upend this critique. Before the march began, speakers on a makeshift stage emphasized their credentials either as anti-apartheid activists, if they were older, or advocates for socioeconomic justice if they were younger—on the right side, in other words, of an otherwise racially charged divide.

As the marchers gathered, a community organizer and MC for the day, Godfrey Phiri, announced, “The only thing we should separate by color is the laundry.”

In the moment, what struck me was the rather sudden coalescing of thousands of South African citizens from varied social classes and racial groups. The gathering reminded me of the healthy mix of people across racial lines in those long queues to get into FIFA World Cup games back in 2010. Here, white grannies under wide-brimmed canvas hats wedged themselves in beside urban black hipsters in red-rimmed shades. Those guys took up that time-honored dance of resistance, the toyi-toyi, all the way across the bridge.

Shifting position, I accidentally elbowed the man behind me, and turned to apologize. Nolan Naicker, a middle-aged Indian man of 42, had been surveying his fellow protesters a bit skeptically. Were whites in the crowd true allies, or throwbacks who’d opposed the transition to democracy? As if to present his own credentials, Naicker pulled out his cellphone, thumbing through photos of his younger self in a T-shirt emblazoned with the slogan udf unites, apartheid divides, from the United Democratic Front, the broad-based coalition of civic organizations, churches, labor, and student groups that played a central role in bringing apartheid down. “That T-shirt fits much tighter now,” he joked.

Like middle-aged South Africans in the crowd, he’d spent the first half of his life under an extreme form of legalized systemic racial segregation and the second half in a post-liberation society. This was the first march in which he was publicly protesting against a leader of the ANC. “For us, it means realizing, now that we have the vote, that having a healthy politics means doing a lot more than voting,” he said.

* * *

As a result of the mobilization in December, and rising alarm about Zuma’s leadership early in the year, senior members of the ANC registered deep alarm at the connection being repeatedly made between the party’s leadership and rampant corruption. “We must be concerned any time you’ve got such large numbers of people saying things against the organization,” Zweli Mkhize, the ANC’s treasurer general, told me by phone. “We’ve got to avoid further shocks to the system.”

Even the president’s closest confidants felt that the outcry over his replacement of the finance minister had all the marks of the ANC’s “most serious crisis since 1952,” according to Ebrahim Ebrahim, a veteran of half a century in top party positions who is currently the president’s parliamentary adviser. “He has made all these proclamations about fighting corruption, but there’s a perception we haven’t done enough,” Ebrahim noted. “It’s a very dangerous perception for the party and a good issue for the opposition to seize upon.”

Ebrahim thought a global economic downturn, paired with failure, so far, to move larger numbers of South Africans into middle-income status, could pose a bigger risk to the ANC. An increasingly broad-based anti-corruption movement could threaten the party’s hold on core constituencies, especially black urban workers and the rural poor. In other places around the world, like India and Brazil, he’d watched support for progressive parties founder over their failure to curb corruption. Persistent charges of cronyism at the top could hollow out the party’s historic moral claim as the leading force in the country’s transition to democracy. This posed an existential threat, he thought, of stripping the ANC of its identity as “the primary vehicle for the achievement of aspirations of African people.”

Still, even some officials quite critical of President Zuma felt wary about toppling him in response to mass mobilizations. Was it wise to simply dump the president less than two years after a nationwide election in which he’d led the ANC to victory by nearly 62 percent? Thabo Mbeki had been pressured by supporters of Zuma to resign back in 2008, before the end of his term. What kind of precedent would it set to summarily remove another elected head of state in the same way?

“Heads of government around the world make decisions that have disastrous effects all the time without it being seen as terminal,” a top official, who asked not to be named, argued. “The idea that the democratic process should be short-circuited in this way, in a new democracy, is pretty dangerous.” Besides, he felt that mass mobilizations against the president played into Zuma’s hands because he was a master in the art of political defense. “One of the great abilities of the president is to play the victim. Then, the party is forced to rally around him.”

Summarily removing Zuma also carried the risk of exacerbating the yawning gulf between urban and rural voters. Urban, and more educated, citizens tend to view the president as a dishonest rogue, a reputation rooted in a string of business deals involving his children and cronies. Rural citizens tend to think of him as someone routinely denigrated by the more educated elite—including the black elite—because he’d begun his life in poverty. In interviews over the years, they have noted how urbanites ridiculed him for his traditional views, his polygamous ways, and his stilted English—for sounding and looking and behaving, in other words, more like themselves.

* * *

As marchers set off across the Nelson Mandela Bridge, couples with toddlers in tow threaded past young black men dancing and singing rude lyrics in Zulu and Sesotho about the president’s sex life. They swept up the incline behind banners that read, “corruption, Public Enemy Number 1,” “Cry the Beloved Country,” and “South Africa Comes First.” That last entry, scrawled across a long, narrow banner, was an expression of outrage against a remark Zuma had made to a party gathering the month before, that the interests of the governing party should always trump those of the country. Previously, Zuma had insisted that the governing party should rule “until Jesus comes back.”

The Mandela bridge was inaugurated back in 2003 by the grandfather of the country himself. It’s an elegant, soaring, cable-stay structure that stretches for 300 yards in a lazy, river-shaped curve that runs through a vibey neighborhood around the University of the Witwatersrand campus, linking northern, leafy neighborhoods traditionally occupied by whites across a massive railyard to the overstuffed central business district, home to working-class black immigrants from other parts of Africa.

In this sense, the bridge was an appropriate setting to deliver the organizers’ message of anti-racist and egalitarian values. Mandela died in 2013, but several speakers invoked his memory, including scholar/activist Prince Mashele, who shouted: “Nelson Mandela did not go to jail so Zuma could loot the country!” As the protesters reached the midpoint of the bridge, they jammed the span all the way to Newtown.

“Frankly, it’s the first big nonracial march since the end of apartheid,” said Mark Heywood, one of the key organizers. “At that time, unfortunately, whites didn’t respond as strongly as we might have.” Heywood had been a veteran organizer for the Treatment Action Campaign, a broad-based HIV-advocacy organization that had successfully pressured the ANC government during Mbeki’s presidency to make antiretroviral treatment for HIV available in public-health clinics. He now leads section 27, a public interest law center focused primarily healthcare, food security, access to water, and social-security policy.

In the past year there had been a series of militant mass protests, mostly by the young. Organizing aimed at removing colonial and apartheid-era statues from public spaces, dubbed #RhodesMustFall, had morphed into a broader call to make university education more accessible, called #FeesMustFall. Heywood thought it only natural that these movements had flowed into the latest incarnation: #ZumaMustFall. “The fear once felt by lots of people—of being seen as critical of the ANC—has been broken,” Heywood argued. “There’s finally a dawning recognition that people politics is not the same as party politics. What we have here is citizen politics.”

Stun Grenades in St. Georges Mall

Ever since 1994, when Mandela was elected president, the State of the Nation Address, in Parliament in Cape Town, has served as a national celebration of South Africa’s transition from racist autarchy to nonracial democracy. It’s a fashion show/politics mash-up, like the Oscars and State of the Union address on the same day. Typically, the ritual opens with members of the new political elite, in sleek gowns, oversize hats, and expensive suits, parading across red carpet laid over colonial-era cobblestones to the front entrance of the National Assembly.

Inside, in any normal year, members of Parliament would listen politely as one of the four heads of state since Liberation Day, including Mandela, Thabo Mbeki, and Jacob Zuma, reminded them of the party’s historic “bias towards the poor” before everybody rushed off to publicly funded parties, where the music blew all night long.

Not this year. On February 11, entrances to the national legislature were sheathed in whorls of barbed wire, throngs of demonstrators were shoved down Adderley Street ahead of unbroken ranks of club-wielding riot police, and all the parties were canceled. On St. Georges Mall, stun grenades landed near fleeing militants demanding the resignation of President Zuma.

As far back as 2004 I’d watched him glide across the carpet with his distinctive swagger, mugging, beaming, and bowing. This year, the president rolled up in a white van. He’s a big-boned man with a bullet-shaped head, known for his almost eerie air of calm, even in the direst crises. But when he stepped down from the car, he looked all tucked in, even funereal. Last year, he’d been heckled and members of Parliament—led by a former supporter, Julius Malema, who once vowed to “kill for Zuma”—were physically pummeled and removed from the chamber. No wonder he wasn’t looking forward to the event.

Raised as a shoeless, illiterate, orphaned goatherd, Zuma spent a decade in prison for his work in the ANC, banned at the time, and more than a dozen years in exile with the party’s guerrilla wing. After returning from exile, in 1990, he enjoyed a meteoric rise to the deputy presidency in 1999, followed by an equally ignominious fall. In 2005, President Mbeki removed Zuma as deputy president—in a live broadcast from the very chamber he was poised to enter now—because of suspicion that he’d taken a massive bribe. (Formally charged later, Zuma was never tried.)

The following year, Zuma was forced to defend himself against a charge of rape in a cringe-worthy trial. In the wake of his acquittal, though, he’d managed the most remarkable resurrection in public life I’d ever witnessed. At the time, he’d successfully portrayed himself as a clean-hearted man of the people targeted by counter-revolutionary traitors within the movement. In the end, he ousted Mbeki as chief of the party in late 2007, and stepped up as president of South Africa in 2009.

Following him around the country during the election campaign that year, I’d seen him lionized, particularly in rural areas, as a quasi-religious savior of the black masses, even a “Black Jesus.”

Back when he was elected to his first term as president, Zuma had enjoyed the complete confidence of 51 percent of the population, according to a national survey of South Africans done by Future Fact, which has surveyed political opinion since 1998.

Last year, the president’s rating for complete confidence was down to 23 percent, the same percentage as those who expressed “some confidence.” Hardening sentiment against Zuma made his overall scores look like they were “falling off a cliff,” according Jos Kuper, the analyst who directed the previously unpublished survey.

In the context of US politics, where the leading presidential candidates in both parties this year score such high negatives, and the approval rating for Congress is at 15 percent, Zuma’s numbers might not look so bad, but they’re far lower than for any other South African head of state since 1994.

Disturbingly, the results were also ethnically coded: Zuma’s largest measure of support came from Zulu-speakers; he held on to “some trust” and the “complete confidence” of two-thirds of respondents last year, while confidence shrank among other groups. This was especially worrying because ANC leaders had always asserted non-racialism and “anti-tribal” politics as a fundamental principle. “You asked why support for Zuma is holding despite so many scandals,” Kuper said in an interview in February. “It’s more than the man—it’s ethnic identity.”

Other poll results suggested that the ANC would eventually pay a price for Zuma’s leadership, however. As far back as 2014, 84 percent of respondents in the survey by Future Fact agreed with this conclusion: “The ANC is moving away from the democratic principles that they fought so hard to implement.” Three-quarters believed that corruption and crime had gotten worse. Nearly all those surveyed favored a new system of direct election of the president rather than selection in Parliament, which would upend the party leadership’s power to select the head of state. (Consider: GOP/Donald Trump.)

The rub in those numbers, for opposition parties hoping to capitalize on the president’s troubles, was that their leaders have consistently polled even lower in measures of confidence than President Zuma. In 2015, 63 percent of black respondents (32 percent by “a lot” and 31 percent “a little”) said they would feel disloyal if they voted against the ANC. Forty-nine percent even thought blacks who voted for the Democratic Alliance (the largest opposition party often derided as white dominated, even though it is led now in Parliament by Mmusi Maimane, a black man) were “traitors.”

This result indicated a persistent tendency, especially among older voters, to treat elections more like referenda on the trauma of apartheid rather than an opportunity to reward, or punish, the governing party for its actual record. “There’s still an intense emotional attachment to the ANC as the mother of the country’s liberation,” explained survey director Kuper. The most highly rated political leaders, in data from last year, were the two likely successors to Zuma if he fell—his former wife and current chairperson of the African Union, Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, and Cyril Ramaphosa, the second in command of the ANC and deputy president of the country.

The Future Fact surveys did reveal a softening of fierce attachment to the party, especially among young voters. Rising numbers across the board described themselves as swing voters. The open question, this year, is whether the pattern of reflexive loyalty to the ANC would persist or be broken during campaigns for municipal and local elections later this year.

* * *

As he entered Parliament for his State of Nation in February, President Zuma descended the polished staircase. On the live stream of the event, you could see him from behind, squaring his shoulders like a boxer headed into the ring. Midway down the stairs, he issued a husky, forlorn hoot. Once he entered the chamber, it was immediately clear how completely he’d lost the capacity to lead. Noisy disorder reigned. For nearly an hour, he cooled his heels as former comrades and close friends turned enemies raised procedural objections (“Point of order chair!”) to rules that had been imposed to try to protect him from their insults. Their aim, of course, was to humiliate Zuma in public.

Even when the president was finally allowed to begin his address, in a halting tone, critics kept interrupted in belittling terms. Mosiuoa (Terror) Lekota, who once served alongside Zuma in the Mbeki Cabinet and as chairman of the ANC but now led a breakaway party, announced, “He broke his oath of office!… He is no longer fit to lead our people.” Next up was Julius Malema, the round-shouldered former youth leader who’d been expelled from the ANC and promptly founded a populist party of his own. Malema cried, “Zuma is no longer a president that deserves respect from anyone.… He has made this country a joke!” It seemed the rupture was particularly bitter because the relationships had formerly been so close in a governing party where leaders so often referred to it as a “broad church,” or “the ANC family.”

Zuma made no mention of the interruptions. He sat down when points of order were raised and then popped up with a shrug to continue where he’d been forced to leave off in reading a highly uninspiring text. He didn’t look like a person in command. From his vantage point at the dais, the insults must have sounded a bit like déjà vu. Back in 2007, he’d placed all his energy and the combined force of his allies behind a do-or-die battle in a nasty, personalized, and ethnically inflected campaign to drive Mbeki from the presidency. In many of the same ways—and in response to protests from many of the same players who’d helped loft him into power—the wheel of history was now turning against him, too.

What nobody could tell, for sure, was how much of the social and political fabric would tear as Zuma’s presidency tipped into its death spiral. In this sense, the decision by the Constitutional Court—the most popular and respected institution in South Africa—has effectively reset the country’s political climate.

Much of the month of March unspooled like a headline writer’s dream. One revelation after another tumbled in—and not only from opposition leaders but from longtime loyal members of the party hierarchy and in government. The most damaging of these reports concerned the overweening influence of the powerful and stupendously wealthy Gupta family, led by brothers Ajay, Atul, and Rajesh, who hold large investments in everything from media companies to mining and are big donors to the ANC. They were accused of having directly offered cabinet positions to individuals, with the implication that they, and not President Zuma, were calling the shots. (The Guptas issued a series of denials.)

These reports led to an internal party investigation about the possibility of “state capture” by the family, a roundabout way for ANC loyalists to stick the knife in Zuma without risking a direct confrontation with him or being seen as undisciplined party operatives. Even ANC loyalists in Parliament allowed that a thoroughgoing investigation of the influence of the Guptas was required.

Back in 2007, during his campaign to oust his predecessor, Zuma had told colleagues in his inner circle that he intended to serve a single term, and then step away from power as Mandela had. Now he’d long passed what South Africans called his “sell-by date.” The lesson he’d taken from the financial crisis, still roiling the South African economy? “He learnt from it,” one close friend told me. This confidante said that the president understood by now that you could abruptly change any number of other ministers —“Home Affairs or Education or any other portfolio, but just don’t interfere with the Treasury.”

Zuma didn’t seemed chastened, though, until the day of the Constitutional Court decision. On Good Friday, Zuma had told a large rally of party faithful that he needed their spiritual support. “Please pray for us not to make mistakes. As you know, the devil is always out to tempt us,” he said. “Please pray for us to behave and treat each other with respect in Parliament. Also, pray for us to govern well.” He looked rested, and sounded ready for a grinding fight. In the immediate wake of the Constitutional Court’s decision, an announcement from his office said that he “noted and respected” it.

For her part, Public Protector Thuli Madonsela said the Nkandla case had perhaps been a blessing in disguise, because the court had forced long-festering issues, like the dispute over enforcement powers of her own office, to a clear conclusion. She thought the decision sent a clear message that those who exercise authority, whether public or private, “must ensure not to surround themselves with praise singers.” Her next investigation: allegations of inappropriate ties between the president and the Gupta family.

In his decision, Chief Justice Mogoeng went to some length to set forth the high standards reserved for the role of president. “The nation pins its hopes on him to steer the country in the right direction and accelerate our journey towards a peaceful, just, and prosperous destination that all other progress-driven nations strive towards on a daily basis,” the chief justice said. “He is a constitutional being by design, a national pathfinder, the quintessential commander-in-chief of State affairs and the personification of the nation’s constitutional project.”

On April 1, Jacob Zuma still held office, but it was unclear whether he could remain in power long. In a long statement broadcast live from Union Buildings at 7 pm, the president said he welcomed the decision of the Constitutional Court and promised to abide by it. He argued, though, that every decision he made was “in good faith and there was no deliberate effort to subvert the Constitution on my part.” The bottom line, he insisted: “I never knowingly or deliberately set out to violate the Constitution, which is the supreme law of the Republic.”

Leader of the Opposition Mmusi Maimane immediately announced that he would introduce a new motion for impeachment in Parliament. Whatever Zuma’s immediate prospects for hanging on to his office, it’s clearer than ever that the president has relinquished any claim on his role as the “national pathfinder” for the historic process, only 22 years old, of creating a new kind of nonracial, anti-sexist, and more egalitarian society at the southern tip of Africa.