JOHANNESBURG – When South African President Jacob Zuma fired two cabinet ministers and suspended his police chief in late October, questions swirled as to whether he had finally sent an effective, well-intentioned message to the notoriously corrupt officials of Africa's largest economy -- or whether he was merely using the guise of reform to shore up waning popular support as he prepares for reelection.
Additionally, the firing on Thursday, Nov. 10, of Zuma's popular main detractor and fellow African National Congress (ANC) party member Julius Malema, leader of the 350,000-strong ANC Youth League, points to the president's desire to keep his party unified as it prepares for national elections in December 2012. It will be the first time Zuma -- who ousted predecessor Thabo Mbeki in an internal party coup in 2007 -- has actually run for president.
The decisive action against both corruption and Malema -- a 30-year-old rabble-rouser other ANC leaders have labeled an embarrassment -- prove Zuma isn't taking any chances. The question is whether the president waited too long to act and whether his actions sent a loud enough message -- and whether the moves are too little, too late. His grip on power could already be slipping. A September poll from the South African marketing group TNS showed that 45 percent of adults in metropolitan areas approved of the job Zuma was doing, compared with 48 percent just six months before.
"He would have looked a hell of a lot better if he'd taken this action a hell of a lot earlier," says David Lewis, head of Corruption Watch, a new agency founded by the South African labor organization Cosatu. "I can think of few democracies in the world where they wouldn't have been gone ages ago. Zuma's had a lot of time to test the water."
The two October dismissals are the second time this year that Zuma has rejuggled his cabinet, attempting to appease critics who say he is too soft on corruption. Two prominent public aides, Cooperative Governance Minister Sicelo Shiceka (in charge of monitoring local governments) and Gwen Mahlangu-Nkabinde, the minister of public works, were let go, accused by Zuma of malpractice while in office.
The president's efforts to show a newfound dedication to eradicating corruption have so far been met with skepticism. Many in South Africa's political class believe Zuma has long benefited financially from corruption.