What are South Africans prepared to sacrifice in order to get rid of President Jacob Zuma?
This question lies at the heart of the current speculation that Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa is in talks with Zuma about a deal that will allow him to leave with “dignity”. Since this deal is being thrashed out behind close doors, the particulars are still unclear.
If Zuma’s demands are met, South Africans stand to lose a great deal. The deal-striking creates the fundamental question of what entitles Zuma to make any demands at all.
He is clearly not in a position to demand any golden or platinum handshake. But South Africans seem fairly tolerant of Zuma’s audacity in making demands even though he has been thoroughly discredited over the past 12 years.
In its news bulletin on Zuma’s possible exit, Al Jazeera listed many of Zuma’s most publicised transgressions, starting with his 2006 rape case.
I remember South Africans commenting at the time he became president: “He might be president, but he will not be MY president.”
Zuma lacked moral authority and enjoyed only thin legitimacy from early on. Over the years his power has been maintained not by popular legitimacy but through his corrupt networking.
The pervasive corruption most probably compromised the decisions of the members of the ANC national executive committee itself. In most healthy democracies Zuma would have been a dead man walking. In SA he is the ultimate political survivor — the Teflon president who bounces back from any personal or political scandal.
The feverish attempts to strike a deal with Zuma have important implications for SA as a constitutional state that purports to be based on democratic principles such as accountability, respect for the rule of law and human rights.
It is the principle of accountability that distinguishes SA from a dictatorship or an authoritarian regime. It is almost certain that civil society organisations and others in the human rights community will be ready to challenge a deal that is in any way unconstitutional.
If Zuma refuses to leave in the absence of a deal, South Africans are stuck between a rock and a very hard place.
One has to balance the damage to our constitutional values against the damage Zuma will almost inevitably wreak if he stays in office.
One way around this dilemma could have been for the nation and the press to shame the ANC NEC and its unwillingness to remove Zuma. It can be argued that this unwillingness taints the NEC as much as the corrupt government officials exposed in The President’s Keepers.
The principles of transparency and public participation in democratic governance are also relevant. The fact that much of the deal-striking is happening behind closed doors compromises the principle of transparency and excludes the citizenry out of this crucial moment for SA.
It is inevitable that the current deal-striking evokes comparisons with Mugabe’s recent ousting and the accompanying deal-making. The Zimbabwean military’s deal with Mugabe included paying him $10m and a salary for life.
The deal with Zuma is also likely to include an offer of money. In light of our recent corrosive history of corruption, it can be asked whether Zuma should essentially be paid to leave office when he has already looted and bankrupted the country on many levels.
Like Mnangagwa, Ramaphosa has described the cleaning up of corruption as one of his key priorities. SA’s high standing in the international community rapidly evaporated under Zuma.
Because of the deal-striking accompanying Zimbabwe’s transition, it can be argued Mnangagwa did not seize political power with clean hands — and that Ramaphosa looks likely to emulate his behaviour. Ramaphosa’s ability to keep things clean starts with the nature of the current deal.
Ramaphosa and the top brass of the ANC should be careful not to replace corruption with corruption. The Zuma exit package might prove too expensive for SA.