GDP growth last year was around half of one percent, the country’s currency has been in free fall for the past year and its bonds face an imminent downgrade to “junk” status.
So, is the South African economy doomed to a long period of low or no growth no matter who is in charge – or is President Jacob Zuma to blame? “Zuma is no longer a president that deserves respect from anyone,” said Julius Malema, leader of the Economic Freedom Fighters in parliament last month.
And as Zuma tried to give his eighth State of the Nation speech, EFF MPs chanted “Zupta must fall” – a reference to Zuma’s ties with the wealthy Gupta family. Julius Malema does not qualify as an unbiased observer, but his view of Zuma is shared right across the political spectrum in SA.
“No one believes anything he says,” said veteran political analyst William Gumede. And yet Zuma continues to be in charge of Africa’s largest economy.
Post-apartheid South Africa was never a great economic success. After the end of apartheid in 1994, there were high hopes that the economy would grow at 6% annually, or better, and create half-a-million jobs a year.
In reality, growth averaged just over 3% in the next decade – and then fell off a cliff after the global financial crisis of 2008. SA joined Brazil, Russia, India and China as a member of the Brics in 2010, but it didn’t really qualify.
While its fellow Brics powered through the great recession of 2009-2012 with undiminished growth rates, SA’s economy fell to 2% growth a year, then 1%and now 0.5%. It is no crime that Zuma was born poor and never went to school.
Neither is it a crime that he has never worked in the private sector – all his jobs, from the age of 16, have been in the service of the ANC. But it is remarkable, given these facts, that he has nevertheless become very rich, worth at least R307 million.
Consider the astounding events of last December, when South Africa had three ministers of finance in the same week. The first finance minister, the widely respected Nhlanhla Nene, had annoyed Zuma by refusing to approve some large contracts in nuclear energy and the stateowned airline. So he was dismissed.
The second finance minister was David van Rooyen, an unknown party wheelhorse with no financial experience. It was soon discovered that he had close ties to the Gupta family, which gave rise to speculation that Zuma was helping the Guptas to capture control of the state’s financial policies. He was forced to resign after four days.
The third man, Pravin Gordhan, was respectable and competent but by then, South Africa’s stock market had collapsed, its currency had tanked, and the Standard and Poor’s ratings firm had reduced the country’s credit rating to just one notch above junk status. SA was already a developed country when apartheid ended.
The best SA could ever have expected was the 3% growth that it had in 1996- 2008. That would have been barely enough to meet popular expectations for rising living standards.
The main cause for its failure to meet those expectations, and for any political upheavals that may subsequently ensue, is Jacob Zuma.