Former president Jacob Zuma resigned from office in February at the behest of the ANC’s national executive committee. He did not want to leave and it took numerous discussions and concessions to get him to resign and make way for Cyril Ramaphosa. When Zuma did eventually concede, he maintained he had done nothing wrong.

The lack of a clearer stance and stronger sanctions of his behaviour are now haunting the ANC. Was he worth it?

In the most recent municipal elections, in 2016, the ANC performed poorly compared to previous years, losing ground to opposition party (or coalition) control, especially in the metros. Later, polls indicated that further confidence had been lost due to Zuma’s maverick cabinet reshuffles and as disclosures of state capture came to dominate public consciousness.

The effect of a decade’s worth of political interference in state-owned enterprises revealed itself through eye-watering figures of financial losses, while core social service delivery was hamstrung, even completely breaking down in some areas. Zuma’s leadership was also a wrecking ball to one of the sacred cows of postapartheid politics: the tripartite alliance among the ANC, union federation Cosatu and the South African Communist Party.

Jacob Zuma. Picture: SUPPLIED
Jacob Zuma. Picture: SUPPLIED

Zuma’s leadership harmed the legitimacy of the ANC government. And yet, during those surreal few days in February, the party did not give clear reasons for Zuma’s removal, stating simply that it was in the best interests of the newly elected leaders and was needed for "party unity".

Indeed, the party was effusive in thanking Zuma for his leadership. The obvious reasons for his removal (obvious to a large portion of the public anyway) were never given and in this vacuum Zuma was able to say with some justification that he had no idea what he had done wrong. In a purely technical sense, then, Zuma wasn’t removed from office — he simply resigned for the greater good of his party; he is a hero, or a martyr, not someone who should be punished.

Waning "Ramaphoria" aside, the organisation cannot afford to become mired in renewed factionalism less than a year from the next general election. Yet this is exactly what is happening.

A new political splinter faction has emerged that wholeheartedly supports the former president. This faction, primarily from the ranks of the ANC, calls itself Mazibuyele Emasisweni, which loosely translates to "Let them go back to their principles".

The group’s primary goals are to lobby for Zuma and to form a political party, the African Transformation Congress (ATC), the media has reported. Their mandate is to pull the electorate away from the ANC, which they feel wrongly ousted Zuma from office. To them, the former president was never found guilty of anything and was removed due to a malicious conspiracy.

Zuma has therefore become a thorn in the side of the ANC, indirectly polarising supporters and leadership and profoundly undermining its "unity" project. How did it get here?

The organisation has demonstrated strength of certain convictions, among which "loyalty" has been paramount. MPs aligned to the ANC averted a number of motions of no confidence in Zuma over the years, not necessarily because they agreed with his views and actions, but because demonstrating unity and loyalty is seen as the right thing to do within the party.

The same logic applied in the manner in which Zuma’s departure unfolded. No clear reasons were given, because doing so would mean admitting that the prior unyielding support for him had been wrong. Now, as the narrative of Zuma-as-fallen-hero gains apace in some circles, there is little the ANC leadership can say to stop it without some serious back-pedalling.

Enough was simply not done at the opportune moment when the errant leader’s conduct was in the spotlight. Things that should have been said remained unsaid. Resignation from a position should not equal resignation from responsibility.

Unfortunately, the precedent has been set. This kind of situation is all too familiar within the South African context. It is easy to think of prominent examples from across the spectrum: Sipho Malaba (former KPMG SA senior partner), Supra Mahumapelo (former North West premier), Qedani Mahlangu (former Gauteng MEC for health and social development), Markus Jooste (former Steinhoff CEO) and Matshela Koko (former Eskom CEO) all simply resigned, or were asked to leave their respective organisations, due to unbecoming (unethical) conduct.

The message, instead, is that even though perpetrators may have to resign if caught engaging in unethical behaviour, they can still live off the spoils of their tenure

Do their cases, taken together, constitute a powerful deterrent to others not to follow their example? The general answer at this stage is no.

The message, instead, is that even though perpetrators may have to resign if caught engaging in unethical behaviour, they can still live off the spoils of their tenure. Chances are good that they will not face criminal charges or a disciplinary hearing, or even ostracism from their party or organisation. If they do face criminal charges, they can probably engage in a protracted court case that may not be able to sanction them in the long run. Indeed, legal and disciplinary processes often protect perpetrators, and organisations have good reason to try hiding the extent of unethical behaviour to avoid further reputational damage.

It is also interesting to see how new incumbent leaders deal with the sins of their predecessors. In many cases these leaders, who are expected to change things for the better, ignore the acts of their predecessors. They act as if their sins were a bad dream — or worse, as if they never existed in the first place. And we wonder why we have so many ethical breaches in both the public and private sectors.

It was encouraging to see that Public Enterprises Minister Pravin Gordhan openly clarified why Tom Moyane was asked to resign from the South African Revenue Service, indicating exactly why he is considered unfit for office. Speaking out in this way often puts one at risk, but it is paramount to signal that someone has done wrong and is therefore being sanctioned. Speaking out in this way takes courage, and this country needs to see more of it if it is to learn from its mistakes.

The truth is that unless individuals are sanctioned effectively for unethical behaviour, and their unbecoming conduct transparently communicated to others, organisations and institutions will be doomed to live out the bad dream indefinitely.

• Vorster is a research specialist at The Ethics Institute.