South Africa's Political Crisis: The Key Players

Jacob Zuma
South African President Jacob Zuma gestures during his question and answer session in Parliament, Cape Town, September 13. Zuma is facing opposition from inside and outside his party as South Africa plunges into political crisis. Mike Hutchings/Reuters

South Africa's political crisis appears to be coming to a head.

Two interconnected issues have thrown the country's political establishment into turmoil. First, South Africa's public protector is probing the relationship between President Jacob Zuma and the Guptas, a wealthy family alleged to have wielded political influence over the president. Zuma had the publication of the report blocked on the day its author, Thuli Madonsela, stepped down from her role, but it is likely to have massive ramifications when it finally does go public.

Second, a power struggle between Zuma and Finance Minister Pravin Gordhan—himself being investigated for fraud—took an explosive twist over the weekend. Gordhan stated in a court affidavit that the Guptas had been involved in "suspicious" transactions worth hundreds of millions of dollars. The revelations have led to the country's left-wing opposition, the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF), launching a criminal case against the Guptas.

As South Africa's political establishment begins to crack—leading colleagues of Zuma have already begun backing Gordhan rather than the president—and columnists describe Africa's most industrialized economy as being "on the edge of a failed state," Newsweek explains the roles of the key players in the crisis.

Thuli Madonsela: The Watchdog

Madonsela concluded her seven-year term as public protector on October 14. She was a nemesis to Zuma during her tenure, uncovering the misspending of millions of dollars of state funds on upgrades to the president's home at Nkandla. The final act of her role was due to be the publication of a preliminary report into alleged impropriety between Zuma and the Guptas.

Thuli Madonsela
Former South African Public Protector Thuli Madonsela waves as she arrives at a press briefing, Pretoria, October 14. Madonsela's probe into Zuma's relationship with the Guptas has put additional scrutiny on the South African president. GIANLUIGI GUERCIA/AFP/Getty Images

But Madonsela's final flourish was blocked after Zuma applied for a court order to block the report's publication, claiming that he had not been given sufficient time to respond to Madonsela's questions. The report has now been passed on to Madonsela's successor, Busisiwe Mkhwebane, and is unlikely to be published before November, when a decision on Zuma's application will be heard.

Pravin Gordhan: The Embattled Finance Minister

Zuma appointed Gordhan as finance minister in December 2015 in the wake of a fiasco that sent the South African rand plummeting and undermined confidence in the country's leader. The president unexpectedly sacked ex-finance minister Nhlanhla Nene, replacing him with a little-known backbencher, David van Rooyen. The latter lasted less than a week in office before he was replaced by Gordhan, who previously held the post between 2009 and 2014.

Since then, an apparent power struggle between president and finance minister has played out as Gordhan has been put under criminal investigation. The country's elite police unit, known as the Hawks, has been investigating allegations that Gordhan oversaw the creation of a rogue spy unit during his time at the country's tax agency between 1999 and 2009.

Opposition parties have interpreted the allegations—dismissed by Gordhan as "wholly unfounded"—as evidence of Zuma trying to exert control over the Treasury. Mmusi Maimane, the leader of the opposition Democratic Alliance, told Newsweek in August that Zuma was "playing Russian roulette" with the South African economy, which is teetering on the brink of recession.

Pravin Gordhan
South African Finance Minister Pravin Gordhan gives a press conference, Pretoria, December 14, 2015. Gordhan is currently being investigated for fraud, a charge he dismisses as politically motivated. MUJAHID SAFODIEN/AFP/Getty Images

The National Prosecuting Authority charged Gordhan with fraud on October 11, in relation to an employment matter that occurred during his time at the tax agency. Over the weekend, Gordhan appeared to strike back. In a court affidavit released Sunday by the Treasury, the finance minister listed more than 70 payments linked to the Gupta family and businesses it controls, totaling 6.8 billion rand ($476 million), that have been reported to authorities as "suspicious" since 2012.

The Guptas: The Accused Family

The three Gupta brothers—Ajay, Atul and Rajesh—have built an extensive business empire since moving to South Africa in 1993. The family's interests include media, mining and IT, and Gupta-owned businesses have employed three members of Zuma's immediate family.

Madonsela's probe into Zuma's relationship with the Guptas came after the country's deputy finance minister, Mcebisi Jonas, claimed in March that the family had offered him the role of finance minister shortly before Nene was sacked in December 2015. The Guptas denied the allegations, but opposition parties and concerned citizens called for a probe into alleged "state capture" by the family—the idea that it was wielding undue political influence through its relationship with Zuma.

The Guptas' problems deepened with Gordhan's affidavit. The finance minister's revelation came as part of an application to the High Court for a ruling that he could not intervene with decisions by South Africa's major banks to cut ties with Gupta-owned businesses. Several major South African banks have cut ties with Oakbay Investments, the Gupta family's investment body, in 2016, and Oakbay had written to Gordhan to request his assistance. Oakbay has said it is investigating five of the 72 "suspicious" transactions listed by Gordhan, but the affidavit has piled additional scrutiny onto the family.

Jacob Zuma: The Under-Fire President

Since coming to power in 2009, Zuma has had his fair share of scandals, including the Nkandla issue and the recent reinstatement of almost 800 charges of corruption against him. But his political battle with Gordhan appears to be isolating him from the rest of his party.

Zuma's right-hand man, Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa, came out in support of Gordhan on Sunday, saying that "whatever legal challenges" the finance minister faced, his efforts to stabilize the South African economy "should not be undermined." Zuma has already faced a groundswell of party disaffection after the African National Congress (ANC) got its worst election result since 1994 in August; Ramaphosa's decision to back Gordhan may be a sign that the party's higher echelons is now deserting him too.

The president's relationship with the Guptas and the machinations trying to block its release also appear to be damaging Zuma's credibility within his party. The ANC said publicly Friday that it supported the release of Madonsela's report, stating that allegations of state capture are "very serious" to the party.

Julius Malema: The Radical Opposition Leader

Malema was formerly an ally of Zuma's when a member of the ANC Youth League. But since founding the left-wing EFF in 2013, he has been an outspoken critic of Zuma, including in relation to the president's relationship with the Guptas.

In February, Malema led a chorus of EFF members of parliament who disrupted Zuma's State of the Nation address by chanting, "Zupta must fall," in reference to the president's ties with the business family. The party has even released a house track titled "#ZuptaMustFall," which has received over 9,000 views on YouTube.

Julius Malema
Julius Malema, leader of the Economic Freedom Fighters, speaks at a party rally, Polokwane, South Africa, July 31. Malema's party has launched a criminal case against the Gupta family. MUJAHID SAFODIEN/AFP/Getty Images

South African police served Malema with a summons on October 13 in relation to two occasions—one dating back to 2014—when the EFF leader allegedly incited members of his party to illegally occupy vacant land. The charges, initiated under an apartheid-era law, have been characterized by Malema as a politically-motivated attempt to silence him.

But silent he has not been: the EFF announced Sunday that it had opened a criminal case against the Gupta family, as well as several of its businesses, relating to allegations of theft, money laundering and racketeering.