John Campbell

Africa in Transition

Campbell tracks political and security developments across sub-Saharan Africa.

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South African President Jacob Zuma’s “Let Them Eat Cake” Moment?

by John Campbell
March 20, 2014

A general view of the Nkandla home of South Africa's President Jacob Zuma in Nkandla, August 2, 2012. (Rogan Ward/Courtesy Reuters)


There is an apocryphal story that in France, King Louis XVI’s queen Marie Antoinette was once told, “Madame, the people have no bread.” To which she replied, “then let them eat cake.” The reality behind the story was of a self-centered court widely perceived as isolated from the French people. The French Revolution followed shortly after.

A report issued by South Africa’s national ombudsman, Public Protector Thuli Madonsela, brings Marie Antoinette to mind. After a two year investigation she has issued a report finding that President Jacob Zuma’s expenditure of some $23 million on his Nkandla estate allegedly for “security enhancements” was “inconsistent with his office.” Among other things, “security enhancements” included a swimming pool, described as fire-fighting equipment. Her 444-page report urges Zuma to repay “a reasonable percentage of the cost of the measures.” The $23 million is several times the amount spent on the security of the residences of national icon Nelson Mandela. President Zuma has responded that he will study the report and respond in “due course.” Thuli Madonsela has an enviable reputation for independence and probity. The story is carried in the New York Times, March 19, 2014.

The real kicker in the Times story is near the end. “Money to complete the work was diverted from inner-city regeneration projects.” Here is where the “cake” comes in: diverting money from inner-city deprived areas for a private compound smacks of isolation from the realities of South Africa, and especially from the natural constituency of the ruling African National Congress.

National elections are on May 7 this year. Up to now, South African voting patterns have largely been along racial lines, with the 80 percent of the electorate that is black voting overwhelmingly for the ruling African National Congress. However, the party and Jacob Zuma are increasingly seen as isolated, incompetent, and corrupt. There is speculation that while the African National Congress will retain its parliamentary majority, the percentage of seats in parliament that it holds will fall substantially below its present control of two-thirds of the seats. Should the ANC percentage fall below 60 percent that would be an earthquake in South African politics. There is speculation that if the party representation falls below 60 percent, it will remove Zuma from his position as party leader—and, likely, the presidency. It would be a ”revolution”–of sorts.

Watch that space.

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    South African President Jacob Zuma’s “Let Them Eat Cake” Moment

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