South Africa’s struggle for honest leaders

The ruling African National Congress turned on President Zuma in response to the same kind of civic activism that ended white rule, only this time the cause is honest governance.

Reuters/file
Protesters call for the removal of South Africa's President Jacob Zuma on April 27, 2016.

Just a quarter century ago, South Africa was a model in how to uproot official racism and replace it with democratic values such as equality. Now, with President Jacob Zuma forced from office, it may offer yet another model. This time, South Africans are showing how to replace official corruption with values such as transparency and accountability.

Mr. Zuma, who faces 783 counts of corruption as well as charges he misused public funds, had become so unpopular that the ruling African National Congress (ANC) had to act. On Feb. 13, it asked him to step down. Two days later, he resigned.

These political events reflect an anti-corruption struggle in South Africa – much like the anti-apartheid one – that relies heavily on civic activism as well as a free press and independent courts. The ANC has been losing local elections and much of the public support it earned during the fight against white rule.

The party of the late Nelson Mandela has also failed to deliver on its economic promises – a failure which many South Africans tie to official corruption. A former finance minister estimates the country loses 5 percent of its gross domestic product to official graft.

The outcry against Zuma first escalated in 2016 with a report by the public prosecutor on the influence of three businessmen in government affairs, or what is called “state capture.” Then last April, people took to the streets to protest Zuma’s firing of his finance minister.

In the meantime, the press and other investigators kept digging up revelations of wrongdoing. And the courts forced Zuma to keep responding to corruption charges, a sign of how much the country relies on its post-apartheid Constitution to maintain rule of law.

All this would not have happened if South Africans themselves had not embraced the basic principles of democracy. Ousting Zuma is a triumph of constitutionalism, or an understanding that all people are entitled to be ruled equally and by honest leaders.

The ANC plans to clean up its own house by replacing Zuma with Cyril Ramaphosa, a former union leader who became a successful businessman. He promises to crack down on corruption as he finishes Zuma’s term until 2019. After that, the people will decide if he and the ANC deserve another chance. The people, after all, are the leaders of South Africa’s model of an anti-corruption struggle.

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