Bloomberg View: SA will not prosper while Jacob Zuma remains President

First it was The Economist. Then the Financial Times. Last week the New York Times added its substantial voice to calls for Zuma to go. And today a booming Bloomberg joins in. That’s four of the global investment community’s most influential voices. More significant is that they are actually taking the trouble to express an opinion on leadership of a country which, in a global GDP sense, is almost irrelevant. Were South Africa a US state, its economy would rank just 16th – between Maryland and Minnesota. On a global scale, the country occupies a modest 33rd place, behind Colombia and just ahead of tiny Denmark. But South Africa’s relevance for the world lies in its miraculous transformation under a man who became the global icon for what’s possible when humanity’s best attributes are harnessed. It is this legacy which makes South Africa important enough for the western world’s most important publications to care sufficiently for their editorial boards to comment. When accompanying the Mandela/De Klerk “end sanctions” roadshow to the USA in 1993, I witnessed some of the goodwill the rest of the world readily offers this country. Despite a self-enrichment agenda, President Jacob Zuma has eaten into, but not destroyed that priceless asset. Hope Springs. – Alec Hogg

By The Editors of Bloomberg

(Bloomberg View) – Unlike the 25 percent of his fellow citizens who are without one, South African President Jacob Zuma doesn’t have to worry about finding a new job – for now, at least. But South Africa will not prosper until it roots out the corruption and impunity that mark both his administration and the party that he represents.

The ruling African National Congress blocked an effort last Tuesday to impeach Zuma after the country’s highest court found he had violated South Africa’s constitution. Zuma has presided over not only a series of political and legal scandals, but also a precipitous decline in South Africa’s economic fortunes.

File photo: Jacob Zuma, South Africa's president, pauses during a news conference with Angela Merkel, Germany's chancellor, at the Chancellery in Berlin, Germany, 2015. Photographer: Krisztian Bocsi/Bloomberg
File photo: Jacob Zuma, South Africa’s president, pauses during a news conference with Angela Merkel, Germany’s chancellor, at the Chancellery in Berlin, Germany, 2015. Photographer: Krisztian Bocsi/Bloomberg

The country’s economy will grow this year by less than 1 percent, which lags the rate of population growth. Inflation has hit a seven-year high. Government debt has almost doubled since Zuma took office in 2009, rising to more than 50 percent of gross domestic product for the first time in more than two decades. South Africa’s credit rating hovers near junk status.

South Africa

There is a difference between economic misfortune and mismanagement. Zuma can’t be blamed, for instance, for the fall in commodity prices that has staggered South Africa’s mining industry.

He is very much responsible, however, for formulating and carrying out a plan to put the economy on sounder footing. Instead, Zuma’s most prominent move has been last December’s firing of his well-regarded finance minister. And Zuma’s ability to govern has been seriously undermined by personal and political scandal.

Zuma billed taxpayers for construction of a swimming pool, amphitheater, and cattle and chicken enclosures at his private home. He has used his position to place friends and family in corporate sinecures. He has flouted high court rulings and used security forces to intimidate his opposition.

Such behavior at the top has reinforced perceptions that the ANC has become a vehicle for personal enrichment rather than national development. Over the last year, anger about the corruption and lackluster economy has stoked attacks on immigrants, violent strikes and the largest protests by South African students since the apartheid era.

If Zuma and his party want to win back the confidence of the citizenry and credibility among nations, they have no time to lose. They should move ahead with a bill to promote financial transparency, especially on corporate ownership. A wholesale reorganization of the country’s anti-corruption police units is in order, as is a strengthening of the government’s ability to curb wasteful spending and punish official misconduct. One test will come this October, with the appointment of a new public protector — the official who called Zuma to account for his abuse of taxpayer money.

Many South African voters are rightly outraged by Zuma’s transgressions and the ANC leadership’s apparent tolerance for them. Unless he acts quickly, they will surely express their disapproval in this August’s municipal elections.