When President Jacob Zuma swept into office in 2009, he was seen by many as a welcome change. The charismatic anti-apartheid struggle veteran, who came from a poor background and a populist touch, was an antidote to the distant, technocratic administration of Thabo Mbeki.
Nine years later , Mr Zuma’s fortunes could not be more different. On Wednesday evening, Mr Zuma resigned from his office in disgrace, bowing to pressure from inside and outside the ruling African National Congress (ANC) to step down before his term as head of state is up next year, amid a cloud of corruption scandals.
The former president faces accusations of fraud, money laundering and racketeering, as well as renewed scrutiny over his questionable relations with one of the country's most wealthy families.
Mr Zuma has survived attempts on his political life before, including several no-confidence votes in parliament. Time and again he has been backed by ministers and rank-and-file ANC MPs who risked losing their jobs with a regime change at the top.
But as the country’s economy has slumped and unemployment creeps toward 30 per cent, South Africa’s two main opposition parties, the Democratic Alliance (DA) and the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF), have successfully capitalised on a series of high-profile scandals involving the president to tap into South Africans’ frustrations.
A few pivotal events helped turn the tide against Mr Zuma in the last two years, including the publication in the South African press of a series of leaked emails that allegedly demonstrated how a wealthy family, the Guptas, attempted to use their proximity to the president and his family to secure lucrative state contracts and influence government posts to expand their business empire.
In October 2016, the government’s anti-corruption watchdog had also released a report on allegations of influence peddling involving the Guptas and Mr Zuma, including testimony from a former deputy finance minister that one of the Guptas offered him money to step in as a pliable finance minister. Both Mr Zuma and the Gupta family have repeatedly denied any wrongdoing.
That report ordered Mr Zuma to appoint a commission of inquiry to investigate the allegations. The president tried to fight to the order, but in December last year, a high court ruled that he must abide by the watchdog’s instructions. Mr Zuma appointed the commission of inquiry in January.
The Gupta scandal outraged South Africans, who had heard rumors about the family’s proximity to Mr Zuma for years and now were reading about the allegations over their morning coffee, including some 1.7 million pounds (30 million rand) allegedly siphoned from a fund meant to benefit poor farmers to pay for a lavish Gupta wedding.
At the same time, 18 charges of fraud, corruption, money laundering and racketeering, relating to 783 payments that Mr Zuma allegedly received between 1995 and 2006, were catching up with the president.
The DA has been fighting for years to get those charges, which were dropped in 2009, reinstated against Mr Zuma. Two courts have ruled they should be reinstated, and the National Prosecuting Authority is now expected to decide in coming weeks whether or not to do so. If convicted, Mr Zuma could face jail time.
Mr Zuma’s meddling in the finance ministry has also been part of his undoing. In December 2015, Mr Zuma sacked his respected finance minister Nhlanhla Nene, replacing him with a little known MP. The rand promptly sank, and Pravin Gordhan, widely seen as a bulwark against corruption, was brought in to head the ministry days later to restore calm and investor confidence.
But after a rocky year of relations with the president, the popular Mr Gordhan was also given the boot in a cabinet reshuffle in March 2017, replaced by an ally of Mr Zuma’s, Malusi Gigaba. Once again, the move spooked investors and led global ratings agencies to downgrade the country’s credit rating to “junk” status.
Last month, speaking to a group of students in his home state of KwaZulu-Natal, Mr Zuma blamed the public sentiment building against him on a scandal that preceded all of these: upgrades to his private sprawling estate, Nkandla.
In 2014, the government’s anti-graft watchdog released a report that Mr Zuma had used more than 14 million pounds (246 million rand) in taxpayers’ money on non-security upgrades to the estate, including building a swimming pool, visitor’s centre, and a chicken run. The watchdog ordered the president pay back the taxpayers’ money, which he ignored.
Two years later , the nation’s highest court found that Mr Zuma had “failed to uphold” the nation’s constitution by ignoring that order. Mr Zuma apologized to the nation and paid back the mandated portion of the funds.
Addressing the students in his home province, Mr Zuma grumbled, “Now I am being arrested for building my own home.”