What Does South Africa’s Jacob Zuma Really Want for His Birthday?

Conor Gaffey

South Africa’s president turned 75 on Wednesday.

Jacob Zuma, who came to power in 2009, laid out the gifts he’d like to receive on the big occasion in an ambitious statement on Wednesday. The president’s birthday wishes included economic progress, particularly among black South Africans; an end to racism; and citizens working with law enforcement to fight crime.

But aside from Zuma’s laudable goals, the president may have some other, undisclosed, wishes, given the current state of political and economic affairs in South Africa.

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Newsweek takes a look at what might be on President Zuma’s alternative birthday list.

Zuma dancing

South African President Jacob Zuma sings during the African National Congress' (ANC) centenary celebration in Bloemfontein January 8, 2012. Zuma turned 75 on Wednesday and is facing loud calls for him to step down. Siphiwe Sibeko/Reuters

1. No More Marches, Please

The streets of the capital Pretoria thronged with people on Wednesday. But unfortunately for Zuma, they were not well-wishers singing him birthday wishes; they were protesters participating in a mass opposition rally, calling for the president to resign.

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Opposition parties, including the centrist Democratic Alliance and left-wing Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF), have united around a common motto: Zuma Must Fall. The anti-Zuma feeling has intensified since the president effected a controversial cabinet reshuffle on March 30, in which Zuma fired the popular former finance minister, Pravin Gordhan. The reshuffle triggered several ratings agencies to downgrade South Africa’s credit rating to junk status, making it harder for the country to borrow money on international markets.

Zuma attempted to dismiss the marches as racist, saying that some protesters held placards depicting black people as baboons, though critics said that the president was trying to detract from the issue at hand. Julius Malema, the EFF’s leader, said at the Pretoria march on Wednesday: “If not wanting Zuma is racist, then we are proud racists!”

2. A Little Help from His Friends

Zuma’s cabinet reshuffle exposed the deep cracks in the ANC, which has governed virtually unchallenged in South Africa since the end of the apartheid system of white minority rule and racial segregation in 1994. The day after it was announced, Zuma’s Deputy-President Cyril Ramaphosa said firing Gordhan was “totally unacceptable” and leading ANC officials said they had not been consulted about the reshuffle. Yet less than a week later, the party had closed ranks around Zuma and warned ANC parliamentarians not to vote with the opposition in a forthcoming motion of no confidence in the president.

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Zuma protest

Protesters hold placards as they march in South Africa's capital to protest against President Zuma in Pretoria, South Africa on April 12. Zuma's recent cabinet reshuffle has prompted criticism from opposition politicians and even members of the ANC. Siphiwe Sibeko/Reuters

Despite the U-turn by the ANC’s leadership, prominent figures in the party have continued to speak out. The latest was former South African president Thabo Mbeki, who suggested in an open letter on Tuesday that parliamentarians should act in the interests of the people, rather than automatically voting with their political parties. As Zuma faces another test of his leadership, he would no doubt like a united party behind him.

3. A Radically Successful Finance Minister

In the wake of Gordhan’s sacking, Zuma has thrust Malusi Gigaba, the former South African interior minister, into the spotlight by appointing him to head the treasury.

The youngest finance minister in the country’s history, with no economic experience in government, Gigaba is facing a battle to turn around South Africa’s ailing economy while also delivering the economic transformation promised by the ANC for the country’s impoverished black majority. (While the economic condition of black South Africans has improved significantly since 1994, they still earn five times less than their white compatriots.) While still Africa’s largest economy, South Africa registered sluggish growth in 2016 of just 0.1 percent and is not expected to top 1 percent growth in 2017, according to the International Monetary Fund. The junk status downgrade has also hit the value of the rand.

So far, Gigaba is talking the talk. He has promised to speed up the process of “radical transformation” of the economy to benefit black South Africans, which he said may involve “tough and unpopular choices.” If Gigaba is able to achieve greater equality in South Africa while stabilizing the economy, that would be the best birthday present Zuma could wish for.

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