A change of regime in Southern Africa is the flavour of the moment. Just a few months ago Robert Mugabe, at the time the world’s oldest living leader, stepped down as Africa’s longest-serving president. His 37-year long reign was marked by revolution, the overthrow of colonialism, war, political survival, corruption, murders, land expropriation without compensation, and the total collapse of the national economy. The regime change, led by his former ally and the chief of the Zimbabwe National Defence Force, General Chiwenga, and his former vice-president, Emmerson Mnangagwa, was self-titled “not a coup”, and sent shockwaves around the Southern African political landscape. President Jacob Zuma of South Africa, a close friend of Mr Mugabe, should have been listening.
Jacob Zuma is man cut from a similar cloth to Mr Mugabe. A stalwart of his party, the African National Congress (ANC), he was a struggling figure and spent time on Robben Island next to Nelson Mandela. A street-smart politician, Zuma worked his way up through the ranks of the ANC from his release in the mid-seventies to Executive Deputy President of South Africa in 1999. However, due to corruption charges levelled against him and the ensuing public outcry, then President of South Africa, Thabo Mbeki, relieved Zuma of his duties. Two years later, however, Zuma won the position as head of the ANC and consequently in 2009 became the president of the country.
His own regime has been dogged by endless corruption scandals, sexual assault allegations, state capture, misappropriation of public funds, the downgrading of Africa’s largest economy to junk status, and all around incompetence. Under his watch, unemployment levels rose to 28% and public trust in the nation’s leader fell to an all-time low. He allowed an immigrant Indian family, the Gupta family, an unprecedented level of influence in public and government affairs, earning them, and himself, millions in the process. The state-run national carrier, South African Airways, was run into the ground and required a public bailout to the tune of hundreds of billions of South African Rands. The state-run national energy provider, Eskom, was an even bigger failure and is currently in debt to the tune of ZAR415 billion. Mr Zuma, once a populist leader, was proving to be a totally inept president and a national embarrassment.
As a result, in December 2017, he lost his position as head of the ANC to his vice-president, Cyril Ramaphosa. It was a tightly contested battle between Ramaphosa and Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, Mr Zuma’s ex-wife, who supported the president’s policies and was sure to continue his brand of politics. This marked a shift in ANC priorities and paved the way for the early end of his reign. On February 14, 2018, the rift in the ANC came to a head and after much persuasion, he stepped down as South Africa’s president. After the stepping down of Mr Mbeki in 2009, this is the second democratically elected president of South Africa in a row to step down from his position during their second term. His resignation was met with jubilation from the South African public, with very few kind words being spoken about him if any at all. I personally left South Africa twice because of Mr Zuma, the first time being only 18 months into his first term. Waking up to the news of his long-awaited stepping down last Thursday morning, I could only smile. Perhaps my country is not so deep in trouble as I thought, perhaps some semblance of sanity is being restored to our politics.
Where to from here? Well, former vice-president Cyril Ramaphosa will lead the country through to the general elections of 2019 as South Africa’s fifth president since the beginning of the democratic era in 1994. With priorities in rebuilding and uniting his fractured party, restoring public trust in the ANC, rebuilding the failing economy, and addressing the issues of world-leading societal inequality, Ramaphosa has a long and difficult road ahead of him. As an astronomically successful businessman and a famously acknowledged negotiator, President Ramaphosa has the chops to do well but he has many hurdles in front of him before he can feel secure in standing for the general elections next year. But one thing is for sure, no one will be wishing for the good old days beneath Mr Zuma. They never existed.