When Jacob Zuma came to power as president of South Africa in 2009, having pushed out his predecessor, Thabo Mbeki, he promised change. After 15 years of rule by the African National Congress, the party of the liberation struggle against apartheid, of Mandela and Mbeki as well as Zuma, the new president said “shortcomings and gaps” had emerged in the party’s performance. He would do things differently. He would crack down on corruption. He would hold officials responsible for their failures.
The message convinced his support base, particularly his loyal rural Zulu heartland. Other South Africans would have rolled their eyes. Mr Zuma had been charged with corruption in 2005, but had, it was widely believed even then, managed to manipulate the system so the charges were dropped in time for the election.
The corruption issue has not gone away – indeed if anything the cloud over Mr Zuma, who resigned on Wednesday, grew larger and darker as his presidency continued. The new head of the ANC, Cyril Ramaphosa, yet another hero of the liberation struggle, a former trade union boss turned businessman, has been able to unite his party behind the move to oust the president. That of course is not how the party speaks about getting rid of a hero of the liberation struggle. The official euphemism refers to “a transition of power”.
Too often the model followed by post-colonial leaders in Africa and elsewhere has not been South Africa’s Nelson Mandela, but Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe: the independence leader and supposed liberator becomes a dictator – brutal or venal or both. The risk of corruption in liberation movements is ever-present. Such movements are almost always declared illegal, and of necessity use illegal means to obtain the resources to continue their fight.
Once that fight is won, the connections and practices they have built to support themselves remain, and continue to subvert legal norms and ideas of fairness. It takes an almost super-human effort for those within a liberation movement, deprived for years of normal sources of income and newly legitimised by victory, to remain aloof in this process. Mandela could see the danger and managed to avoid it; few others have followed his example. Mr Zuma certainly seems to have made little effort to do so.
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