South African President Jacob Zuma could be ousted later this year after what has been described as “a string of unbelievable errors” in his handling of the mine massacre that shocked viewers around the world.
Zuma is facing criticism for a sluggish response to one of post-apartheid South Africa’s biggest disasters, in which 34 striking mineworkers were gunned down by police. With factionalism rampant in the governing party, some believe the episode could tip the balance against him when he seeks re-election at a conference of the governing African National Congress (ANC) in December.
Critics say that in the hours after the bloodshed at the Marikana platinum mine in the northwest of the country, Zuma was slow to return to South Africa from a summit in neighboring Mozambique. By the time he did reach the mine, it was “too dark” to address the angry mineworkers, he was quoted as saying last week.
Instead the president visited survivors in hospital and read a prepared speech to journalists at a game lodge owned by Lonmin, the company that owns the mine, announcing a commission of inquiry. Many of those present described the address as flat.
Rubbing salt into Zuma’s wounds, his arch political enemy, Julius Malema, addressed the miners the following day, earning cheers as he accused Zuma of presiding over mass murder and called for him to resign. Zuma did speak to the mineworkers last week, but he failed to attend a memorial service, where the limelight was again stolen by Malema, the expelled president of the ANC youth league.
The South African press has accused Zuma of misjudgement in his handling of the shootings. An editorial in the Times said: “Being a leader comes with a responsibility and in this case the president, or his advisers, failed to read the mood. Sometimes a leader needs to suspend protocol and take charge of a situation in his country. Zuma’s absence from the ‘crime scene’ gave others space.”
If history has shown that a major national crisis can make or break a presidency, the omens for Zuma are grim.
Susan Booysen, a political scientist at Wits University in Johannesburg, said: “A wise government takes pre-emptive steps and there had been danger signals for several weeks. Zuma didn’t make a good impression by going to a private lodge. He only went to the miners’ territory after Julius Malema had been there, so he came in on a weak wicket.”
“It was a string of unbelievable errors that came together. I think that, on balance, he came across as weak. There is not much in Zuma’s favour except the swift announcement of a commission of inquiry,” she said
Booysen, author of The African National Congress and the Regeneration of Political Power, added: “Does it really matter? I think it does. If [Deputy President] Kgalema Motlanthe becomes a candidate, this will be important. Opponents of Zuma will pull everything out of the closet to throw at him, just like they did against President Thabo Mbeki.”
Motlanthe, who served as interim president between Mbeki and Zuma, has not yet revealed his ambitions for the ANC elective conference in Mangaung, but in June he openly questioned Zuma’s concept of a “second transition” for South Africa and criticized aspects of the party leadership.
Zuma is seen as vulnerable over personal scandals, such as fathering a child out of wedlock, domestic plagues ranging from corruption to unemployment to non-delivery of school textbooks and foreign policy controversies over the government’s stand on the conflicts in Ivory Coast and Libya.