What #FreeJacobZuma Exposed Jacob Zuma and the Undoing of South Africa

Unlike his predecessors, Nelson Mandela and Thabo Mbeki, Jacob Zuma had a presidency coloured by a messy personal life and corruption charges.

South Africa recently committed to an undertaking of holding political leaders accountable and earlier this year, in May, the country made efforts to prosecute its ex-president, Jacob Zuma, on charges of corruption, fraud and money laundering filed by the National Prosecuting Authority (NPA) over a decade ago. Zuma’s alleged crimes include 18 charges under a $2 billion arms deal in the late 1990s and allegations of Zuma receiving $34,000 annually from Thales, a French arms company, to protect them from investigation. On June 29th, the Constitutional Court imposed the sentence and Zuma pleaded not guilty on all charges while also arguing that his ill health and age guaranteed his death if prosecuted. Defying a court order to present evidence against the inquiry, Zuma evaded a trial and the court instated a 15-month jail term due to contempt, resulting in widespread protests, violence and chaos across the nation in July and August. Zuma served two months of the jail term before being released on medical parole in September. His trial was also postponed to October 26. He has, in the meantime, been receiving medical treatment at the hospital until his trial. A look back into Zuma’s and South Africa’s political history may give further clarity into the state of affairs in South Africa, of the past months.


Born Jacob Gedleyihlekisa Zuma in Nkandla, Kwazulu-Natal in 1942, Zuma had humble beginnings. His father, a policeman, died while Zuma was still young, and his mother couldn’t afford to pay for his schooling. Zuma proceeded to teach himself to read and immersed himself in books. He was influenced by political stories told by men who were part of the Bambatha Rebellion, a bloody rebellion started by a Zulu clan in protest of a new tax enforced by the British colonial administration. Zuma was also influenced by his elder brother, Muntukabongwa Zuma, who had fought in World War II and, subsequently, joined the African National Congress (ANC).

Zuma’s political journey had a fiery start. With a passion for South Africa, after attending several organizational meetings with his brother, Zuma joined the ANC in 1959. The ANC was a political party that started with a primary goal to maintain voting rights for coloured and Black people and transitioned into a party fighting against the rule of apartheid and its segregationist policies. In 1944, Mandela and other prominent figures joined the ANC Youth League and electrified the party into a full-fledged movement based on ideologies of African nationalism. They also initiated non-violent protests, marches and boycotts. By the 1960s, the ANC took up an armed struggle through its underground armed wing, Umkhonto we Sizwe ‘Spear of the Nation’ (also known as MK). At the time, the apartheid government had begun responding to ANC activities with violence, massacres and by banning the ANC’s political organizing.

Zuma had joined MK in 1962 and by 1963, at age 21, was arrested for his contributions to initiate military training for MK recruits in Zambia. He was sentenced to ten years in prison on Robben Island for alleged antagonism against the apartheid government. Throughout his ten years in prison, Zuma survived terrible prison conditions, with Black prisoners receiving different food than coloured and Indian prisoners. Additionally, his mother couldn’t afford to pay for the ferry to the Island, so he lived through those years without any visitors. During his time in prison, he still served the ANC by initiating political study groups and discussions and acting under roles such as a PR officer.

Shortly after his release from Robben Island in 1973, Zuma returned to MK, creating underground networks of recruitment for young people and contributing to provoking industrial worker strikes. Eventually, in 1973, he had to flee South Africa to avoid arrest. Zuma, however, continued to contribute to ANC efforts in neighbouring countries like Mozambique, Zambia and Swaziland (where he met Thabo Mbeki) as the head of organizational units and head of intelligence and only returned to South Africa in 1990, once the ban against the ANC had been lifted.

After his return, Zuma’s main focus was his participation in a steering committee managing negotiations with the apartheid government for the return of exiles and the release of political prisoners. He served as the ANC’s chairperson of the southern Natal region in 1990 and initiated a partnership with the Inkhata Freedom Party (IFP) to reduce internecine violence. In 1999, he was elected as deputy secretary-general of the ANC. By 1994, the partnership with the IFP actually grew into the RDP Education Trust which was chaired by the IFP leader and established by Zuma to invest funding into education for poor and rural learners in the region. During his presidency, the Trust and his efforts saw the enrolment of children in school increase, with pre-school enrolments doubling, and enrolments in higher education and training colleges going up by 90 per cent; nonetheless, the standard and quality of that education have been brought into question in the past years with 80 per cent of grade four children being illiterate as of 2017.

By 1994, Zuma was part of the executive committee for economic affairs and tourism of the South Africa’s south-eastern, coastal Kwazulu-Natal region. During this time, he was known for his work with IFP in reinstating peace and ending political violence in KwaZulu-Natal (and received an award for doing so); for investing in local community development by creating a world heritage site, the Greater St Lucia Wetland Park between KwaZulu-Natal, Swaziland and Mozambique; and for the development of Shu Shu hot springs in the province as one of many community tourism projects. Zuma also invested in economic infrastructure through his leadership in the development of King Shaka International Airport and the Dube Trade Port.


From his time as head of economic affairs and tourism in 1994 to his presidential election in 2009, Zuma was implicated in several accusations. These included allegations in the death of an MK member in 1989 and the 2005 fraud and corruption conviction of his close friend and financial advisor, Schabir Shaik. Shaik was accused of soliciting up to R1.2 million (around $82,000) in bribes for Zuma. He garnered further charges from an alleged arms deal to a French arms company. At the time, however, prosecutors dropped all charges and procedural grounds. In 1997, Zuma excused himself from ANC activities but the ANC general council, against Mbeki’s wishes, still reinstated him as deputy president of the ANC. In 2006, he faced a rape charge by AIDS activist, Fezekile Ntsukela Kuzwayo, whose father had been a close friend of Zuma during their imprisonment at Robben Island. Zuma denied all allegations arguing that the sexual incident had been consensual; he was acquitted while Fezekile faced death threats and—after her house was burnt down—was offered asylum in Holland.

Many of Zuma’s supporters claimed several of these allegations against him were politically motivated and, as such, he remained a popular political figure in South Africa. He was appointed deputy president of the country in 1999 but faced charges from Mbeki. These included charges of corruption, fraud, money laundering, and racketeering. However, the judge dropped the charges stating that Mbeki had interfered with the case. Mbeki was then forced to resign as president. After Kgalema Motlanthe’s one-year stint as interim president, Zuma finally succeeded Mbeki as president in 2007.

As president, Zuma stood behind several Zulu traditions and customs. One such custom was polygamy, which made him a polarizing figure among South Africans. Unlike Mandela who had brought South Africa out of the apartheid regime, or Mbeki who had promoted African Renaissance by spearheading the African Union and New Partnership for Africa’s Development (NEPAD), Zuma had a presidency coloured by a messy personal life and corruption and fraud charges, both old and new.

Nonetheless, Zuma garnered support from segments of the population through other presidential responsibilities he fulfilled as well as through initiatives his administration deployed to address the stark economic inequality in South Africa. Unlike his predecessor, Mbeki who was an AIDS denialist, Zuma was pro-HIV prevention. While chairing the South African National Aids Council, in 2005, Zuma championed the fight against AIDS and the rolling out of antiretroviral therapy, which increased average life expectancy of people with AIDS by ten years. These achievements notwithstanding, Zuma received a lot of criticism and negative media attention after his rape trial when he confessed that he did not use a condom despite the accuser’s HIV status. He also mentioned that he had taken a shower after to minimize his risk of contracting the virus. Several AIDS agencies, activists and bodies felt he had taken their work a significant step backward and that his comments would influence his followers to oppose safe sex.

Zuma was involved in mediation efforts across the continent, in Zimbabwe, Libya and Côte d’Ivoire especially, on behalf of the Southern African Development Community and African Union often calling an end to political violence, intimidation and state prosecutions in various nations. Additionally, in 2010 he co-founded and chaired the Masibambisane Rural Development Initiative (MDRI) in Nkandla, KwaZulu-Natal; a project focused on creating farming initiatives to eradicate hunger and poverty in rural areas and South Africa as a whole to support self-sustained households that could produce their own food. It centralized the agricultural sector as the primer for economic development and boosted public-private partnerships facilitated by the government. Provincial governments, the Department of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries and the Department of Rural Development and Land Reform all worked together in several development projects under MDRI including irrigation schemes, livestock projects, the opening of an agro-hub and a number of food security programmes.

While the MDRI was started to help over twelve million South Africans to gain access to food there have been controversies around misplaced government tenders that went to family members rather than development projects they were assigned to. Additionally, in 2012 there were investigations in a two-billion-rand investment in building a town two kilometres from Zuma’s personal compound in Nkandla. The MDRI was started with a large cooperation of traditional leaders in various provinces, the largest number in Zuma’s home province of KwaZulu-Natal (120) then Eastern Cape and Mpumalanga (40) and has been accused as a hand-out scheme used to garner support in those provinces.

Aside from MDRI, several other foundations have been started since Zuma rose to power by himself as well as other close family members including the Jacob Zuma RDP Education Trust, Jacob Zuma Foundation, Friends of Jacob Zuma Trust, Tobeka-Madiba Zuma Trust, and three others. While some donations to these foundations and initiatives have been reinvested largely in the Nkandla—Kwazulu-Natal area, large amounts of funds and tenders have gone missing and are speculated to have been used to cover Zuma’s legal fees against fraud and corruption charges, strengthen Zuma’s support base, support the family’s lifestyle, buy patronage, secure more political influence or gain more advantage for future state tenders. For example, MDRI was noted to have handed out tractors in the Eastern Cape province where support for Zuma’s leadership by the ANC was waning. Outside of the Education RDP Trust, none of the other seven have filed annual reports with the department of social development.


Two of the bigger scandals of Zuma’s presidential term were his improper spending on his personal home property and his affiliation with the Gupta brothers stoking a fire to the #ZumaMustFall movement. In regards to the allegations of impropriety, he had made extensive state-funded upgrades to his property in Nkandla citing security reasons for the upgrades while they included a swimming pool, amphitheatre, cattle kraal and other improvements described as ‘opulence on a grand scale’ with costs stretching up to 215 million rand (in contrast to the 32 million rand spent on Nelson Mandela’s home). While for some time Zuma refused to pay funds invested in his home back to government claiming that his family had paid for the upgrades, eventually he issued an apology, repaid the $600,000 asked of him and survived a parliamentary vote of no confidence.

With the Gupta scandal, Zuma worked with the Guptas to ensure they secured lucrative government contracts with government departments and state-owned companies. Compliance was rewarded with promotions or money from either the Guptas or Zuma and rebellion was dismissed quickly. Zuma’s partnership with the Guptas combined with the random firing of the finance minister, Pravin Gordhan, caused a public outcry, reduced trust in the South African economy, internationally and domestically, and sparked #ZumaMustFall protests across the country. The public bodies affected included ministries of finance, natural resources, public enterprise, communications and tax agencies, the state broadcaster (SABC), South African Airways and the energy company, Eskom.

Several international companies and firms that had done business with the Guptas either issued an apology or closed down; the Guptas fled South Africa and Zuma’s presidency came to a final end in 2018. The scandal resulted in billions of dollars leaking out of what used to be one of Africa’s strongest economies, the ANC was criticized with allegations of corruption against several of its members including Zuma and the country was left with an environment of distrust around its democratic institutions and regulatory agencies. Tax collections had plunged since Zuma had removed the state tax agency, the rand was plummeting, the country’s stock market began its ultimate decline, government debt reached 55 per cent of the country’s GDP and in 2018 the World Bank recorded South Africa as having the highest income inequality in the world. Two-thirds of the Black population were now in poverty in comparison to one per cent of Whites and more than half of the youth were unemployed. As of 2018, Zuma faced 783 corruption, fraud, money laundering and racketeering charges. Earlier this year, the NPA reinstated 16 of those charges in relation to the Shaik Scandal. This scandal was the switch that flipped the trigger of the Zuma presidency’s undoing and the shaky foundation of apartheid the nation had been built on.

At the end of his presidency, Zuma’s approval rating fell from 67 per cent in 2010 to 25 per cent. Despite this decline, after the court order in late June 2021, hundreds of Zuma supporters armed with guns, shields and spears gathered around his home in KwaZulu Natal in protest, committing to defend him. His supporters have included MK veterans, political and public executives instated by Zuma and loyal to him. Zuma supporters have also been some ANC supporters, those organizing around ethnic identity and attempts to protect that identity, others impacted by his emphasized ideals and actions of economic redistribution and community development to address the racialized poverty in South Africa as well as those who benefited from his million-rand investments in his home area, in Nkandla. There, he had renovated family houses and provided the surrounding areas with electricity, roads and piped water.

It stands to reason that in a country with stark racialized poverty and needs, investments made out of corruption are still weighed heavier than no investments at all. While there have been no organized protests outside of Nkandla and Durban, this may be due to the challenges of organizing during a pandemic rather than Zuma’s lack of support in such areas. On 08 July 8 2021, Zuma handed himself over, and the protests soon snowballed into one of the worst states of unrest the country has seen. There was chaos, violence, and looting in several major cities and townships as protests were joined by criminal groups and angry youth.


As of July, at least 337 people had died in the violence and looting, 79 in the Gauteng province and 258 in KwaZulu-Natal—the two provinces that account for more than half of South Africa’s GDP. Additionally, the economic loss associated with the violence was measured at R20 billion ($1.37 billion) as infrastructure was damaged and destroyed including 161 shopping malls, 11 warehouses and eight factories. Statistics on damages and death toll were last measured in July and showed 25,000 soldiers were deployed and over 2,500 arrests made. However, many civilians found the police force’s efforts to be inconsequential to their areas’ safety, with ammunition supplies for the force running out and being supplied by civilian networks along with a spike of civil vigilantism as people seek to protect their homes and facilities.

The state security system was unprepared at best, dismal at worst, with road closures, fuel and food shortages exacerbating its incapability. On social media, numerous videos and images showed malls and stores going up in flames, cars overturned and burnt and even absurdities of rhinos crossing streets as reserve encampments have been broken down. Civilian videos displayed unending gunshots; pictures showcased clothing, electronics and foods looted in large as well as strewn across the streets. Civilian vigilantes were pitted against looters and those instating violence which ultimately brought South Africans head-to-head with one another.

In all, the overarching theme seemed to be chaos and highlighted a vacuum in leadership and rule of law. While the state of the country in the past months was heart-wrenching, to say this turn of events was surprising would be a stretch.


South Africa as an independent nation stands at the young age of 27 and with its mass inequalities and remnants of the structures set in place by the apartheid regime its independence has largely been built on a broken foundation. Examining South Africa’s transition from apartheid to democratic nation, reveals that under apartheid, South Africa’s was problematically built on a large cheap (free) labour force through settler colonization. South Africa also maintained a closed economy (due to sanctions and being isolated from the international economy) that supported buying and consuming locally.

Transitioning into independence meant equality of human rights which, in turn, reduced the availability of cheap labour, increased wages and reinstated an open economy. Ultimately, the transition reduced South Africa’s economic independence, necessitating political leadership that addressed the gaps and holes the transition would leave for previously repressed and marginalized South Africans. Zuma’s arrest existing as a trigger button has emphasized and further exposed South Africa’s trajectory if the needs of the South African majority remain unaddressed. The structure created in the apartheid era has been further exacerbated by policies of raising wages and welfare subsidies being favoured over promoting job growth or economic innovations that can pivot the nation from its agrarian, racial wealth imbalance, to wider prosperity.

Additionally, while apartheid was officially ‘over’ in 1994, its remnants remained in a form of geographic apartheid. The apartheid regime re-organized the cities for White inhabitants alone with Black people on the periphery and the establishment of a transportation system that allowed Black labourers to come into the city. Consequently, the nation’s spatial segregation came to reflect the regime’s racial policies and became a physical manifestation of the subordination that Black South Africans confronted. The apartheid regime was engaged in reconstituting and remoulding cities into cities of inequalities scattered with fortified enclaves. The stereotypes that emerged under the apartheid regime thus extended beyond being tied to group identity and became mapped onto the geography and spatial organization of the city itself.

While the laws birthed out of these stereotypes had been repealed, the effects and influence of these stereotypes have not been actively reversed. The democratic government that came to power in the 90s enforced economic and political laws of affirmative action but left urban restitution largely untouched and urban integration left to forces of the market. With majority of the Black population in poverty and without property purchasing power, housing and territory of the White population was easily maintained, with a whopping 73 per cent of commercial farmland still being owned by White farmers today. 14 per cent of the population still lives in informal settlements and Black neighbourhoods lack basic services while White neighbourhoods and populations hold the majority of the wealth and power. 27 per cent of Black South African students cannot read and roughly 4,000 South African schools still only have pit toilets with several incidents of a child’s death as a result of this being reported over the years. The Southern Africa Labour and Development Research Unit shared that ‘virtually no Whites live below the middle class and in fact, comfortably improved their economic status in post-apartheid South Africa because our economy channels such a big share of national income to the top ten per cent.’

Since South Africa’s transition into independence and leaderships failed, attempts to address inequalities, broken promises of job creation, and economic and social development have fostered a growing level of tension and anger among the less privileged. The World Bank has called South Africa ‘the most unequal nation on the planet’ and in 2018 also ranked South Africa as the most corrupt country in the world. Approximately 50 per cent of South Africans live below the poverty line in households earning 1149 rand ($90) or less each month, with that largely constituted by youth who have low prospects of getting a job and accruing wealth or livelihood for themselves. The nation had been riddled with poverty, crime and inequality over the years and the arrival of the pandemic meant the economic and social state was further exacerbated, with unemployment peaking past its previous 56 million people (32 per cent) in 2021. Many of Zuma’s supporters are younger, poorer individuals who resonate with his message of addressing economic inequalities and bringing dignity to the rural, poor and uneducated. In many ways, Zuma’s arrest was seen as a rejection of his ideologies and was seen as his contrast to his rival the wealthy businessman Cyril Ramaphosa, made things no better. Considered by many as a man of the [poorer] people, his arrest came to be interpreted as being against the people.

JP Morgan estimated that the South African economy would contract by three per cent in the third quarter and be pulled back from a year’s worth of growth. Additionally, South Africa is projected towards an economic and political collapse by 2030 by Eunomix Business & Economics Ltd. Head of Statistics South Africa claimed it would take several years to rebuild lost infrastructure and businesses and that a collapse would only spur further unemployment.

What will take more years to rebuild, is an equal society.

In the meantime, South Africa can take the current events as a warning to reform previous policies. The notion of expropriation without compensation may seem like an easy redress but may not actually be effective (Zimbabwe as a case in point). What may be more beneficial is an approach towards more inclusive development that addresses the racial wealth imbalance. This would mean investment in education, learning or vocational training to enhance upward mobility for citizens, commitment to job-intensive growth policies and strategies to account for the rising unemployment and low job prospects. It would also mean initiatives and innovations that open up different kinds of avenues for economic growth and wealth accruement that don’t rely on the current racially unequal holds of wealth.

The resurgence of civil society in response to the civil unrest painted a picture of civil governance that may bring hope for the future—one in which governance moves from hierarchical (expectations of government) to active citizenship. While expectations may be low for the current leadership, there’s reason to remain hopeful about South Africa and South Africans—if not the older generations, then at least those who are younger, who seem to have a different vision and understanding of the South Africa they want and need

The views, thoughts, and opinions published in The Republic belong solely to the author and are not necessarily the views of The Republic or its editors. We want to hear what you think about this article. Submit a letter to the editors by writing to [email protected].