How will South Africans remember Jacob Zuma?

Critics say Jacob Zuma will be remembered for lining his pockets at the expense of common South Africans.

President of South Africa, Jacob Zuma speaks during the Energy Indaba conference in Midrand, South Africa
Under Zuma's watch South Africa struggled to create jobs and meet its growth targets [Siphiwe Sibeko/Reuters]

Durban, South Africa Mthokozisi Mthembu cuts a lonely figure sitting on a park bench outside the Workshop in the Durban city centre.

He hunches over his resume, studying details and occasionally looking up, his eyes adjusting to the glare of untypical overcast conditions above.

Originally from Hammarsdale, some 50km out of the city, the 38-year-old has travelled to Durban, as he has done for the past week, to find a job.

“I have given my CV to many companies, but there aren’t many opportunities. The things government talk about have no connection to us,” Mthembu said wearily.

Around him, hundreds of others, mostly young adults, sit cross-legged on the grass embankment. Some are students, taking a break from classes, others are workers enjoying a smoke break. Then, there are the rest, job seekers with documents curled up in their hands.

“I will remember [former President Jacob] Zuma as the president who thought about himself, not others,” Mthembu muses. “I don’t know a good thing he did for anyone of us.”

After weeks of intense pressure from inside the African National Congress (ANC), opposition parties, civil society and the general public at large, Zuma finally stepped down as president of the republic late on Wednesday.

The system rewards patronage. This is why people join politics in this country. They know that if you get an 'n' into the system, you will make it.

by Steve Friedman, University of Johannesburg

In the coming days, there will be many political obituaries written on him – ones that will sketch a public life beset with allegations of racketeering, corruption and mismanagement. He will be blamed for taking a once prestigious liberation party to the edge of disrepair. But it is the acute sense of betrayal of common South Africans that is most likely to resonate most.

Zuma became president of South Africa in 2009 under the most casuistic of circumstances.

Populist lies

Having been fired as deputy president by former president Thabo Mbeki in 2005 over a corruption scandal, Zuma managed to dress himself up as a victim of a witch-hunt.

Two years later, he won the ANC leadership, dragging trade unions and the working class into a spire of populist lies in which he claimed to represent their interests. He subsequently became president of the country when the ANC won the 2009 national elections.

Under his watch, South Africa struggled to create jobs and meet its growth targets.

According to Phumlani Majozi, non-executive director at the Free Market Foundation based in Johannesburg, unemployment rose from 22-28 percent under his watch.

“The country descended to junk status and national debt has risen under him,” Majozi told Al Jazeera.

Analysts say as Zuma became increasingly embroiled in one corruption scandal after another, he set about interfering with state institutions, placing loyalists in key positions as he looked to build an impenetrable empire.

“His departure will be his main legacy. It will set an important limit on the undue exercise of presidential power,” Sizwe Mpofu-Walsh, activist and author of Democracy and Delusion, told Al Jazeera.

“South Africa will look back and wonder how we allowed a president so reprehensible to last so long in office,” Mpofu-Walsh said.

Ayesha Omar, a lecturer in political science at Wits University, said Zuma possibly “brought the ANC to its lowest point since its inception”.

But for others, such as Steven Friedman, director for the Study of Democracy at the University of Johannesburg, Zuma was always merely a symptom of a larger malaise in the ANC and government.

“The system rewards patronage. This is why people join politics in this country. They know that if you get an ‘in’ into the system, you will make it.

“This culture did not start with Zuma,” Friedman told Al Jazeera.

Rising inequality

It is a view shared by 26-year-old student activist Wandile Gewu, who says state corruption has always been widespread. The focus on Zuma, he said, is exaggerated and part of an attempt to derail a larger Zuma project known as radical economic transformation.

According to Oxfam, the top 10 percent of South African society earns half of all wages, whereas the bottom 50 percent of the country’s workforce receives just 12 percent of all wages.

When broken down by race, Stats South Africa says white people earn five times more than black people in the country. Zuma supporters say it was the former president who introduced free tertiary education for the poor and looked to end the privilege of what is known in South Africa as white monopoly capital.

“He is the only president in the history of the ANC who had the courage to fight it head-on,” Gewu said.

Mpendulo Khwela, 27, also a student based in Durban, told Al Jazeera it was Zuma who brought South Africa into BRICS, a group of five emerging economies, “that looks to boost and sustain the country’s economy”.

But analysts say Zuma achieved little other than lining his own pockets.

“Look, I’d say that the Zuma administration was aggressive when it came to tackling the HIV pandemic and scaling up the ARV [drug] treatment programme. But other than that, it’s hard to point out any positives from his presidency,” said Majozi from the Free Market Foundation.

The move to make higher education free for working class and poor students is seen by many as untenable and merely populist attempts to hold on to power. “Even if free education is ideal, it’s unclear how we can afford it in our current circumstances,” Majozi said.

The burning question of land redistribution, considered among the most pressing issues of post-apartheid South Africa, was routinely put off and slow under Zuma’s watch. It was only in 2017 that he began pushing for land expropriation without compensation.

Fraught legacy

Omar said Zuma’s legacy will be “characterised by populist opportunism, corruption, state capture and an utter disregard for constitutionalism”.

“The country has found itself in a dire economic situation with staggeringly high rates of unemployment because of reckless leadership,” said Omar.

Friedman emphasised that “Zuma tried to make the state his private property”.

In 2016, the Constitutional Court ruled Zuma had “failed to uphold, defend and respect the Constitution” when he refused to pay heed to the public prosecutor’s findings that he had to pay back a portion of state funds used to upgrade his rural home in Nkandla.

The opposition began impeachment proceedings in parliament, but this failed, too, when the ANC majority in parliament voted against the move. In December 2017, the Constitutional Court ruled that parliament had violated the Constitution, too. This ruling, and the election of Cyril Ramaphosa as the new leader of the ANC, set into motion the move to pressure Zuma to step down

“Whatever happens, no one is going to say, ‘Oh, I wish Zuma was here,'” Friedman said.

Mthembu, still sitting on the bench, said he will have to come back in a few days to deliver more CVs to potential employers. He said the system is unfair and wonders if Zuma will face prosecution in the days to come.

“If I commit a crime, I won’t find a job. I will be marked as ‘dirty’. How is it that the president can steal, be a criminal and continue to lead a nation?'” he said.

“You want to know how I will remember Zuma? Well, I guess he could dance. I will miss that,” he said with a grin.

Source: Al Jazeera