JOHANNESBURG (Reuters) - On the day Jacob Zuma finally caved to pressure to quit as South African president, he ranted to the state broadcaster for an hour about the ill treatment he had received at the hands of the party he had served since his teenage years.
Zuma, besieged by sleaze and graft scandals throughout his nine tumultuous years in power, said it was “unfair” the African National Congress had told him to resign, mainly because his comrades had not followed proper party procedure.
To South Africans who have suffered economic stagnation and national embarrassment under Zuma, it was yet more evidence of a leader unable to look beyond the byzantine inner workings of Africa’s oldest liberation movement to consider the greater good of Nelson Mandela’s ‘Rainbow Nation’.
Zuma, a 75-year-old anti-apartheid veteran and Zulu polygamist, has been South Africa’s most controversial leader since the end of white minority rule in 1994.
It was Zuma’s mastery of the ANC’s internal dynamics that enabled him to survive for so long, but his political influence had been on the wane since Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa replaced him as ruling party leader in December.
As recently as August, after loyal lawmakers helped him defeat a no-confidence vote brought by the opposition, he cracked jokes and broke into song with a cheering crowd outside the South African parliament.
Six months later, he was forced to resign after the ANC’s parliamentary caucus told him it would help the opposition sack him on Thursday via yet another no-confidence vote.
“It’s us who got South Africa into this mess by electing Zuma to be president,” Jackson Mthembu, ANC chief whip has said. “We should have looked closely into the man. With hindsight we made a terrible error of judgment.”
Zuma was acquitted of raping a family friend in 2006 and is still fighting nearly 800 counts of corruption over a government arms deal from the late 1990s when he was deputy president.
He was found to have violated the constitution for failing to repay public money used to renovate his homestead but has so far escaped with giving a half-apology. He eventually paid back more than $500,000.
Zuma has come under fire over his ties to the Gupta family, whose members include three businessmen accused of using their friendship with him to amass wealth and influence government policy. The Guptas and Zuma deny any wrongdoing.
In 2012, Zuma also angered many for scolding “clever blacks” in a speech.
FACTBOX: The major scandals of Zuma’s presidency
Ramaphosa, 65, now controls the ANC’s National Executive Committee, its top decision-making body.
A former trade union leader and one of the country’s richest black businessmen, Ramaphosa has promised to root out corruption and revitalise a sluggish economy, pledges which have driven a “Ramaphosa rally” in the rand currency.
Waning electoral support for the ANC and public anger at near-daily corruption revelations encouraged the ANC to pressure Zuma into resigning well before his second term was due to end in mid-2019.
Zuma, whose Zulu middle name Gedleyihlekisa means “the one who smiles as he hurts you”, has cast a long shadow over South African politics for the past decade.
He was booed in front of foreign dignitaries at liberation hero Nelson Mandela’s memorial service in 2013, lampooned in the media and criticised for overseeing years of economic decline.
But the folksy charm of Zuma, a teetotaller, and his modest upbringing ensured that he always retained a loyal following, especially in rural areas.
“There is no politician whose name carries the same weight in rural areas as Jacob Zuma,” said Carl Niehaus, an ANC spokesman who quit in 2009 after a scandal about his personal finances only to re-emerge eight years later as a Zuma cheerleader. “He was a pro-poor president under whose leadership basic living conditions improved drastically.”
During the apartheid era, Zuma was imprisoned for 10 years with Mandela on Robben Island. Later he went into exile, before returning as white rule came to an end.
Commentators had written off Zuma’s political career on several occasions, but he proved them wrong time after time, earning himself the nickname of the “great survivor”.
Ronnie Kasrils, a former intelligence minister and anti-apartheid veteran who spent years in the ANC underground, said Zuma was not the “simple man” he portrayed himself to be.
“Astute and engaging from earlier days, along the way Zuma has become driven by a lust for wealth and power,” Kasrils wrote in “A Simple Man”, his recent biography of Zuma.
Using skills honed as the ANC’s intelligence chief during apartheid, Zuma silenced dissenting voices by promoting little-known officials who did his bidding to powerful positions in the security and intelligence portfolios.
Zuma also ensured the top leadership of the ANC was always controlled by loyalists who could, if needed, thwart attempts to unseat him.
“The politics of patronage sustained Zuma,” said Bantu Holomisa, an opposition leader and former ANC member. “All those who would have questioned him were rewarded with cabinet posts and ambassadorships abroad. Those who were deemed undesirable were ferreted out of the ANC.”
For Zuma, everything changed in December.
Ramaphosa defeated Zuma’s preferred successor, his ex-wife Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, in the ANC leadership contest. Several prominent Zuma allies on the National Executive Committee recognised which way the wind was blowing and switched allegiances.
Zuma made some last-minute concessions in the hope that opponents would let him see out his time, agreeing to establish a judicial enquiry into allegations that the Gupta brothers had influenced cabinet appointments and received unfair access to state tenders.
But it was too little, too late. South Africans started discussing “when” not “if” Zuma would be given the boot.
Early this month parliamentary speaker Baleka Mbete agreed to schedule another no-confidence vote against Zuma following a request by one of Zuma’s political nemeses, Julius Malema of the ultra-left Economic Freedom Fighters party.
Zuma said Ramaphosa was willing to let Zuma stay on as president for several months, but the party’s executive committee wanted Zuma gone immediately.
Analysts caution that Zuma’s legacy will take time to fade.
“Zuma’s departure is nothing more than an opportunity for change,” said Ralph Mathekga, a political analyst and author. “Government coffers have been ransacked and our state-owned enterprises are on their knees. South Africa is broke.”
Editing by James Macharia and David Stamp