Skip to main content

It was not a good omen for Jacob Zuma when, last October, South Africa's Supreme Court of Appeal upheld the reinstatement of corruption charges relating to no fewer than 783 payments to him. Yes, 783.

The charges had been filed before Mr. Zuma became the country's president in 2009. He denied any wrongdoing, but scandals can be sticky when they reaffirm an impression that already exists in the public mind. South Africans didn't need to be convinced that Mr. Zuma could be bought.

Perhaps the defining feature of his presidency – which ended with his resignation last week – was the relationship between Mr. Zuma and the Gupta business family.

The Indian-born tycoons built close business ties to the Zuma clan and allegedly accrued enough influence to hire and fire cabinet ministers, among other abuses of power.

Mr. Zuma's descent to such swampy lows marked a depressing trajectory for the former freedom fighter, who spent a decade in prison as a member of the armed wing of the African National Congress and helped negotiate an end to apartheid.

As his political reputation sank, he tried to drape himself in the mantle of the heroic old days. It was a familiar move. Like him, too many African leaders have parlayed their anti-colonial bona fides into kleptocratic perches atop their liberated countries.

Thankfully, southern Africa seems to be growing tired of the act. In November, Zimbabwean strongman Robert Mugabe finally stepped down – 37 years after he helped his country liberate itself from white rule.

Angola underwent a similar shift in September, when the country's ruling party replaced president José Eduardo dos Santos with a former defence minister, the first new president the former Portuguese colony has known in 38 years.

Of course, in all three countries, the public grew tired of their leaders long before they stepped aside. Only recently have the hegemonic party structures in these countries wised up, and then only to the extent of replacing the out-of-favour leader with another party stalwart. (South Africa's new president, Cyril Ramaphosa, was a Nelson Mandela lieutenant.)

Real democratic renewal will only come when power in post-colonial African countries is shared by more than one party. But in the meantime, it's worth celebrating the peaceful departure of another discredited leader.

Interact with The Globe