South Africa: Despite His Legal Woes, Zuma is Unlikely To Be Driven From Office

Jacob Zuma
South African President Jacob Zuma, pictured dancing before addressing a trade union conference in the capital Pretoria, May 1, continues to garner support across the country despite multiple scandals. MUJAHID SAFODIEN/AFP/Getty Images

This article was originally published by the Council on Foreign Relations.

South Africa's High Court has ruled against the president yet again. It has determined that the prosecutor's decision to drop 783 charges of corruption against Zuma should be reviewed. According to the BBC, Judge Aubrey Ledwaba characterized the 2009 decision to drop the charges as "irrational." The ruling allows the National Prosecuting Authority to reinstate the charges, though it is unclear whether it will do so. Nevertheless, once again, South Africa's judiciary has demonstrated its independence from the executive.

Among South Africans concerned with advancing good government and maintaining the country's celebrated constitution, the high court's ruling is another political wound for Zuma. Predictably, the Democratic Alliance (DA) has again called on Zuma to resign. However, as the BBC's Pumza Fihlani points out, the ruling has little impact on Zuma's core constituency, the rural poor. Zuma has carefully tended to his base through patronage networks. His governing African National Congress (ANC), too, is dependent on the votes of the rural poor for its huge parliamentary majority. For rural ANC voters, legal questions and court decisions are remote; like the rural poor elsewhere, many are seeking merely to get from today to tomorrow. They are buffeted by changes ranging from the country's rapid urbanization to the persistence of southern Africa's worst drought in many years. Many of them, especially the Zulu, about a quarter of South Africa's population, identify culturally with Zuma, who plays to ethnic politics and is an open polygamist, having fathered at least 22 children. For many rural, poor South Africans, Zuma is a champion.

Within the ANC, no president is all-powerful; the party removed Zuma's predecessor Thabo Mbeki from the party leadership and from the presidency. Despite the court ruling, the only practical way Zuma could be removed from office is if the ANC leadership concludes that he has become a major electoral liability. South Africa has local elections in August. If the DA and the other leading opposition party, the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF), do well, the ANC may conclude that Zuma must go, despite his strength in rural areas. The DA has its eyes on Johannesburg and the Port Elizabeth metro area, parts of the increasingly urban South Africa. The EFF looks to increase its votes in the urban townships. Up to now, the principal predictor of voting behavior has been race. The ANC has been the "black" political party, and the DA is still perceived by many as "white." It is by no means certain that the ANC will do badly.

South Africa is a constitutional democracy. The powers of all elements of government are constrained by the constitution. But, to some spokesmen for the poor, constitutionalism is seen as a brake on the radical restructuring of the country that is required to lift the black majority out of poverty. At least some of them would like to move South Africa toward a parliamentary democracy in which there are few constraints on the parliamentary majority enjoyed by the ANC. However, South Africa's constitution is very popular. It is identified with the end of apartheid and Nelson Mandela; it has even become an element of South African national identity. Such factors will make changing the constitution difficult.

John Campbell is the Ralph Bunche Senior Fellow for Africa Policy Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York.