The Jacob Zuma Presidency - 2009 to 2017 (March)

Jacob Gedleyihlekisa Zuma ascended to the South African presidency on 9 May 2009 on a wave of popular euphoria fuelled by voters and fellow party politicians alike. A controversial candidate, Zuma’s rise to power had withstood a long succession of ethical and legal wrangling. In 2005, then vice-president, Zuma had been stripped of his rank following allegations of rape and corruption. [1] Yet his popularity endured. Zuma’s acquittal opened the way to advance his campaign for African National Congress (ANC) president. [2] Having usurped Thabo Mbeki as the head of the ANC in 2007 following a successfully waged internal power-struggle, his popularity surpassed Mbeki’s with the party, and Zuma was well-placed to assume leadership of the country in the next national election. [3] With Mbeki tending his resignation as president of the republic in September of 2008 following reports of political interference in Zuma’s trial, the path was clear for Zuma to seize power pending the outcome of his case. Adjudged innocent in a controversial ruling, he was sworn in as president just days later, taking over from interim president Kgalema Motlanthe. [4]

Despite his popularity, enthusiasm at Zuma’s appointment was not unanimous. While supported by the Tripartite Alliance as well as the semi-autonomous ANC Youth- and ANC Women’s Leagues, Zuma was openly distrusted and opposed by factions within the ANC leadership and by political opposition. He was also derided and distrusted by the media and business classes, who suspected foul play and judicial bias following his escape from corruption charges. [5] Zuma’s rise and Mbeki’s closely-associated fall from power was also a primary cause in the formation of The Congress of the People (COPE), a new political party founded by a disgruntled contingent of the ANC, who had turned their back on the party. [6]

In the media Zuma was critcised for his perceived involvement in the controversial South African Arms Deal, finalised in 1999. The deal, which involved accusations of bribery labelled against Zuma as well as his financial advisor Schbair Shaik and several others, concerned the purchase of military equipment required for replacing the country’s dated existing arms. The alleged bribes amounted to what was almost R2-billion. [7] In addition, Zuma’s credentials for taking the country forward were questioned given his lack of a formal education. [8] Zuma was also ridiculed in the media for his perceived ignorance, with statements he made during his rape trial particularly scorned.  Having admitted to sex with a woman he knew to be HIV positive, Zuma claimed he had sought to diminish the likelihood of infection by taking a shower. [9]

Zuma’s election campaign was built largely on a platform of Zulu nationalism and charisma. He projected this identity and character through an ideology of leftism, while he excelled in rallying supporters through his engagement in traditional folk song and dance, as well as protest era remembrance. Furthermore, rather than work against him in the eyes of his supporters, Zuma’s numerous criminal trials - coupled with Mbeki’s interference in Zuma’s corruption trial - played a significant part in heightening his image as a figurehead of the people’s struggle, resulting in at times vindictive support of Zuma against his prosecutors. [10] Zuma’s image continued to be widely celebrated following his election, as he was considered an active member of the wider Zulu community while widely regarded as having the best interests of the people at heart. [11] This image was contrasted all the more given the negative perceptions of Mbeki prevalent across the country, with the former president predominantly perceived as cold and overly business-minded. [12]

Zuma was quick to emphasise unity upon taking office. Addressing the country at his inauguration speech, he spoke of a firm commitment to continuing the nation-building project established during Nelson Mandela’s presidency. Zuma also promised to work towards building a more egalitarian and efficient society, a goal he spoke of achieving within a single term in office. [13] For Zuma, much of the country’s problems could be attributed to what he perceived to be ineffective management of service delivery budgets, poor tendering, and corruption – problems that could supposedly be corrected by decentralising presidential powers and disposing of incompetent officials. [14]

The promise of employment was also central. With unemployment sitting at 21.5% at the time of Zuma’s inauguration, the millions of jobless South Africans presented a notable obstacle for the government to overcome. [15] The significance of the unemployment problem was all the more prevalent given the impact of global economic downturn following the Great Recession of 2008. By the end of September of 2011, unemployment had risen to 25.3%, though it dipped marginally in the third quarter to 24%. It was not until 2011 – the year following the FIFA World Cup hosted in South Africa - that decisive action was taken. Declared as “the year of job creation”, the government established a R9-billion fund with an aim of reducing unemployment to 15% by 2020. Other initiatives included the introduction of tax breaks for manufactures and policies of support for small businesses, as well as a youth development programme. [16]   By the end of Zuma’s term in 2014, however, little dent had been made. With over 1.1-million jobs having been lost during Zuma’s first year in office, employment figures had recovered somewhat, but still remained worse-off than they were prior to the recession in percentage terms as unemployment hovered at the 24.3% mark by the end of 2014. [17]

Much of the Zuma administration’s initial focus was directed towards ensuring the success of the 2010 FIFA World Cup, hosted by South Africa. Tourism and security were considered of great importance for the World Cup as a successful tournament represented a golden opportunity for the country. There was a dramatic influx of visitors - as many as 1.4 million visited South Africa during the course of the tournament - but more crucially it was hoped a lasting legacy for tourism and investor confidence could be created. This free advertising associated with the tournament alone has been estimated to have been worth of $2- billion in value. [18] A successful World Cup was also an incentive for boosting the country’s morale and pride, a key tool for cross-cultural unification and nation building, as South Africa’s success in the Rugby World Cup of 1995 had once testified to. [19] The tournament was widely hailed as a success in the short term, with the upgrade in public transport a notable gain despite concerns the costly maintenance of the stadiums would register as a financial liability to municipalities in forthcoming years. [20]

The first couple of years of Zuma’s term were rocked by fresh personal and political upheaval. A polygamist, Zuma was criticised for setting a bad example for South Africa’s youth, particularly given the high expense of maintaining his marriages and the apparent contradiction between his actual behaviour and the ANC’s stance on sex health. [21] Zuma had already been wed three times prior to his marriage to Nompumelelo Ntuli in 2008. While he was still married to his first wife Gertrude Sizakele Khumalo, Zuma had divorced from his second wife Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma in 1998, while his third wife Kate Mantsho had committed suicide in 2000. In 2010 Zuma had married for a fifth time, tying the knot with Thobeka Mabhija, with whom he had fathered a child in 2007. [22]

Criticism for Zuma became particularly outspoken in January 2010 following revelations he had sired another child, this time with Sonono Khoza – the daughter of prominent soccer administrator and businessman Irvin Khoza – back in 2009. [23] Known as the “Love Child” scandal, the revelation only continued to fuel debate in the press as supporters of polygamy argued the practice was a cultural tradition to be upheld and tolerated, with detractors’ distaste allegedly amounting to nothing more than cultural intolerance. Critics, on the other hand, argued polygamy remained an obstacle to gender equality, while it was also argued to muddle the state’s official line on safe sexual practice in an HIV ravaged country. [24]

Zuma’s fifth and then his sixth wedding, this time to Gloria Bongekile Ngema in 2012, triggered criticism from the press and in parliament following the exposure of his £1.2 spousal support budget. This figure, approximately double the budget afforded to Thabo Mbeki and Kgalema Motlanthe during their tenures, was criticised all the more given the contrast of Zuma’s lifestyle with the plight of the country’s poor. Zuma should only be afforded state support for his first wife, detractors argued, and should not be afforded funds for each of his wives in turn. [25] The controversy was heightened all the more given the publishing of an article by The Mercury in 2010 which questioned the legality of some of Zuma’s marriages, which suggested the spousal support budget itself might amount to an illegitimate drain of taxpayers’ funds. [26]

Zuma was embroiled in another scandal in 2010 following his failure to declare his assets within the stipulated legal timeframe. With the law requiring every cabinet member to fully list their permanent companions, assets, liabilities and dependants within 60 days of taking office, Zuma failed to do so. The president was subsequently found to have implicated himself in an ethical breach – as regulations had been put in place to prevent clashes of interests between the president’s private assets and those of the country. [27] Zuma eventually did publicise his assets following criticism in the media.

The president courted controversy yet again when fresh allegations over his alleged misuse of state funds relating to the development of his private residence in Nkandla came to light between 2011 and 2012. Reports concluded Zuma had spent as much as R246-million on the property, over 40% of which was paid for by the state under the pretence of security expenses, including features such as housing for Zuma’s relatives, a visitors’ centre, a kraal, a marquee area, a visitors’ centre, an amphitheatre, as well as extensive paving. [28] The charges against Zuma continued to alienate political opponents as well as large sectors of the media and public. Denounced for what would eventually be ruled an unconstitutional action, Zuma would not face prosecution for his actions until his second term in office.

The greatest blemish of Zuma’s first term in office was unquestionably that of the Marikana Massacre, the greatest incidence of police brutality in the country since the fateful Sharpeville Shooting incident of 1960.  Taking place 16 August 2012, the tragedy unfolded when a contingent of armed police forces engaged a crowd of peaceful protestors calling for a wage increases at the Lonmin platinum mine. The shooting was precipitated by six days of escalating violence amid the ongoing protest, in which different factions of mineworkers – the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) and the Association of the Mineworkers Construction Union (AMCU) – clashed with one another as well as with security forces. Prior to the shooting, 10 people had already lost their lives, two of them security personnel. [29]

The shooting itself erupted as a large crowd of mineworkers – some of whom allegedly brandished sticks or other weapons – made as if to confront South African Police Service (SAPS) security forces. While the SAPS claimed to have acted in self-defence when they engaged the miners, the miners claimed they had simply sought an escape from their position, where they had been walled-in by security forces. [30] The shooting resulted in the deaths of 34 mineworkers, while an additional 78 workers were wounded. Acting quickly to address the tragedy as well as respond to rumours that political figures had colluded with SAPS to put an end to the strike, Zuma called for the establishment of an official commission to investigate. [31]

The tragedy appeared all the calamitous given suggestion the confrontation had been entirely avoidable. Lonmin had at first agreed to meet with the leaders of the miners to negotiate, but then went back on their word as further security forces were called in. [32] The incident also marked a political turning point for Zuma in eyes of his supporters. With the tragedy likened by many to Apartheid-era violence and brutality, critics questioned whether the country had really changed following its democratisation in 1994. [33] Marikana had become symbolic of Zuma’s struggles to tear down the black-white socio-economic disparity, while his inability to address wealth redisposition was beginning to cause ill-feeling in pockets of his once unquestioning support. [34]

With Zuma’s first term coming to a close, ANC supporters had become increasingly weary of the president. Well aware of the unfolding Nkandla scandal, rocked by Marikana, and angered by a lack of a significant improvement in their living standards, many were expressing a loss of faith in Zuma’s ability to lead the country forward. While the sanitation, access to electricity, and life expectancy of the country had increased during Zuma’s tenure, economic growth had stalled to its lowest level in 16-years while unemployment remained higher than when Zuma had first assumed office. This displeasure was subsequently mirrored by the voting patterns of the South African public in the forthcoming election. With the Zuma-led ANC losing significant ground as their majority share of the vote declined from 65.9% to 62.15% as the party’s stranglehold over the country took a notable knock ahead of Zuma’s second term in office. [35]


[1] No Author. “SA’s Mbeki says he will step down.” BBC News. 20 September 2008.

[2] BBC News, 2008 and No Author. “Jacob Zuma the chameleon brings South Africans joy and fear.” The Guardian. 20 April 2009.

[3] BBC News, 2008.

[4] Webb, Boyd. “Mbeki resigns before the nation.” Mail & Guardian. 21 September 2008.;  BBC News, 2008; Orr, James. “South African court clears way for Zuma presidential run.” The Guardian. 12 September 2008.

[5] No Author. “Ngcuka accused of ‘derailing justice’”. 24 August 2003. and Fowler, Andrew. Untitled. Foreign Correspondent. 7 April 2009.

[6] No Author. “History of COPE.” Congress of the People. Date Unspecified.

[7] Brümmer, Stefaans and Sole, Sam. How arms-deal ‘bribes’ were paid. Mail & Guardian. 5 December 2008.

[8] The Guardian, 2009.

[9] Ismail, Adiel. Zuma’s Aids shower comment comes back to haunt him. Health24. 17 October 2016.

[10] James Orr, 2008. 

[11] No Author. “Presidential Inauguration 9 May 2009: Souvenir Edition.” Date Unspecified.; No Author. “Biography of Jacob Zuma.” African Success. 16 June 2009; Lander, Alice. “Durban basks in Zuma’s ANC victory.” BBC News. 19 December 2007.; and The Guardian, 2009.

[12] Le Roux, Mariette. Acquitted Zuma will be ‘unbeatable’. Mail & Guardian. 3 November 2005.

[13] No Author. “Full text of President Zuma’s Inaugural Address.” 9 May 2009.; and  Monare, Moshoeshoe. “Zuma: I only want one term.” IOL. 27 July 2008.

[14] Moshoeshoe Monare, 2008.

[15] No Author. “Has President Jacob Zuma’s government done ‘a good job’?” Africa Check.  23 March 2015.

[16] No Author. “2011 SA’s ‘year of job creation’: Zuma.” Brand South Africa. 11 February 2011.

[17] Africa Check, 2015.

[18] Moodley, Roze and Arcangeli, Janine. “World Cup pinnacle of SA's success – Zuma.” 18 August 2011.; and Harding, Claude. “The 2010 World Cup and what it meant for Africa” How we made it in Africa. 21 June 2011.

[19] No Author. “Zuma pins Africa's hopes on World Cup.” 31 May 2011.

[20] No Author. “Have the WC Stadiums finally become white elephants?” News24. 13 March 2012.

[21] Fihlani, Pumza. “Is Zuma's sex life a private matter?” BBC News. 3 February 2012.

[22] Pillay, Verashni. “All the president’s children.” Mail & Guardian. 4 February 2010.

[23] Batty, David. “Jacob Zuma apologises for fathering his 20th child with friend's daughter.” The Guardian. 6 February 2010.

[24] Pumza Fihlani,2012.

[25] Laing, Aislinn. “Jacob Zuma faces losing £1.2 million support for four wives.” The Telegraph. 20 June 2012.

[26] Ngcobo, Ziyanda. 21 March 2017. “Zuma: We must never forget Sharpeville.”

[27] Davis, Gaye. “Zuma fails to declare his assets.” IOL. 7 March 2010.

[28] AmaBhugana Team. “Nkandla report: Payback Time, Zuma.” Mail & Guardian. 29 November 2013.; and Smith, David. “Jacob Zuma accused of corruption 'on a grand scale' in South Africa.” The Guardian. 29 November 2013.

[29] No Author. “Marikana Massacre 16 August 2012.” South African History Online. 16 August 2013.

[30] Desai, Rehad and Khanna, Anita. Miners Shot Down. Online. Directed by Rehad Desai. New York: Icarus Films, 2014.

[31] South African History Online, 2013.

[32] Desa and Khanna, 2014.

[33] Herskovitz, Jon. “Mine "bloodbath" shocks post-apartheid South Africa.” Reuters. 17 August 2012.

[34] South African History Online, 2013; and Jon Herskovitz, 2012.

[35] No Author. “2014 National and Provincial Elections Results.” Electoral Commission of South Africa. 10 May 2014. and Africa Check, 2015.