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The Church responds to Zuma’s resignation

The country's bishops have welcomed Jacob Zuma's resignation saying that South Africa has moved from a “depressive situation” and can now “look forward to new beginnings”.  They have also told the ruling party to get its house in order and take responsibility for their part in allowing the presidency of Zuma to create the mess it did in the country. Religious leaders strongly urged the new leadership to turn away from party politics with haste, and to focus on the cry of the people. 

The Church in South Africa has responded positively to the news of Jacob Zuma's resignation on 14 February, calling on South Africans to stand behind the new president, Cyril Ramaphosa as he is sworn in.

Zuma resigned after being recalled by his party saying that while he did not agree with the party's decision, he was a disciplined member and would do as requested.

Bishop Abel Gabuza of Kimberly, chair of the Southern African Catholic Bishops' Conference (SACBC) Justice and Peace Department, told Spotlight that the resignation should have happened long time ago, but nevertheless, one is “happy that it has happened”. The bishop welcomed the move by Zuma and said it was time to work towards the renewal of our country.

“This should be accompanied by making certain that all those who have benefited from the illegal financial gains are identified and shamed.”

The bishop added that it was also important that non performing cabinet members and deputy ministers are not retained. “We have a long journey to undergo, but hopefully the mood in the country will be positive. As we move out of a depressive situation, we can look forward to new beginnings.”

Anglican Archbishop Thabo Makgoba said that once one has taken the oath of office to be president of the country, one has “an obligation to be accountable to all the citizens of the country over which one presides [rather] than the party they may come from”.

“The indiscretions that [Zuma] had found himself embroiled in pointed to the undeniable breakdown of a contract between himself and the people he is obligated to serve, as well as inadvertently became a source of division within his party, the ANC.” Makgoba said the country had descended into a state of distress, but that Zuma should be thanked for stepping up to afford the country “a much needed relief”.

“Hard as it might have been for President Jacob Zuma to have arrived at his decision to quit his post, it nevertheless has relieved him from the burden of rejection that had placed him standing on the opposite side of this country’s glorious history.”

Archbishop William Slattery of Pretoria, spokesman for the SACBC, said that the inability of the ANC to give Zuma a picture of the nation and the reluctance to hear the voice of committed South Africans was problematic. “Zuma's words were empty when he asked what he had done wrong. However, this was a great failure of the ANC to let him know what the real situation was and to hold him to account.” The archbishop called Zuma's ignorance “ludicrous.”

“With his exit, we hope this will give us the wisdom to make adjustments to the way South Africa is governed. We need adjustments that make government more accountable.”

Bishop Sithembele Sipuka of Mthatha, first vice-president of the SACBC, said he appreciated the efforts of the leadership of the ANC to respect the dignity of the president by persuading him to voluntarily resign instead of “immediately humiliating him”.

“Regardless of the prevailing negative view of Mr Zuma, it is important that he is treated with dignity,” the bishop told Spotlight, adding that he equally appreciated the firmness that was applied when Mr Zuma had initially refused to resign. “Respect to his dignity must be balanced against the good of the country,” Sipuka said.

The ANC said the decision by Zuma was consistent with what he had said earlier: that he has never and will never defy the ANC. “President Zuma remains a disciplined member of the ANC. In giving effect to the decision of the ANC National Executive Committee to recall him, President Zuma has reaffirmed his commitment to the principles, practices and character of the movement to which he has dedicated his life,” Jessie Duarte, Deputy Secretary General of the ANC, said in a statement after Zuma's resignation.

While Bishop Sipuka congratulated the ANC in the handling of the matter, calling it a “good sign as we move forward,” it was regrettable that Zuma had taken so long to act. “That was not statesmanlike and it has given confirmation to the wide assertion that he cared more about himself than the country. He could have saved himself some dignity by bowing out in time.”

The bishop said that it was good that the “Zuma saga” was over and that the incoming leadership could now focus on the important matters of serving the people and creating employment, especially for young people.

“I learnt this morning that here in the Eastern Cape the latest official statistics of unemployment is 37% and you can bet that in real life situation it is more than that. Hopefully the leadership can now focus on such matters of importance and urgency instead of bickering about keeping a person in power for his own sake.”

Archbishop Slattery said the recent political discourse in the country has been focused on political party leaders and not South Africans. “We have a fault in our parliamentary system where members of parliament focus on leaders instead of the needs of the country.” He said this extended to other political parties including the Democratic Alliance.

Makgoba believes that South Africa now has, at its disposal, a golden opportunity to start anew. “May those called upon to take off where [Zuma] left, not squander the gift of this moment. I hope I will be speaking for many by saying we have a country to build, a new vision to shape and a future to craft future that our children will be happy to inherit. Even in this trying hour this is a message I wish the we could embrace to direct our nation building energies towards.”

In a statement, Archbishop Stephen Brislin, President of the SACBC, said the Church would urge the governing ANC to take “careful note of the way in which allowed this situation to develop over the last ten years”. The bishops have called on the ANC to commit itself to a “thorough reassessment of its internal standards and mechanisms of accountability”.

Cyril Ramaphosa will be sworn in as president on Friday and speculation is that Lindiwe Sisulu will be appointed as deputy president. A major cabinet reshuffle is expected to follow soon. Meanwhile, reaction has been mostly positive with the country's currency strengthening.

“We have to give the new government an opportunity to proceed,” Slattery told Spotlight. “Hopefully we have learnt to react more speedily to failures in the country – especially on moral issues. It is time to look outside the houses of parliament and see the poverty, education and health issues around us.”

Slattery also called on South African businesses to follow up on their criticisms of Zuma and to start reinvesting in the country, providing employment and contributing to the redistribution of wealth.

* The opinions expressed here by Spotlight.Africa contributors and editors are their own and not official statements of the Society of Jesus in South Africa or of the Catholic Church unless explicitly stated.