South Africa Can't Rise Under Zuma's Cloud

Zuma's money pit.

Photographer: RAJESH JANTILAL/AFP/Getty Images

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.

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.

To contact the senior editor responsible for Bloomberg View’s editorials: David Shipley at davidshipley@bloomberg.net.