Dispatch

Nelson Mandela’s Party Is Turning on Jacob Zuma

The African National Congress is realizing the only way to save itself is to ditch South Africa’s president.

PRETORIA, SOUTH AFRICA - DECEMBER 14:  South African president Jacob Zuma speaks during an African National Congress (ANC) led alliance send off ceremony at Waterkloof military airbase on December 14, 2013 in Pretoria, South Africa. The ANC held an official send off ceremony as the body of former South African President prepares to make one final journey to his hometown of Qunu for burial. Mr. Mandela passed away on the evening of December 5, 2013 at his home in Houghton at the age of 95. Mandela became South Africa's first black president in 1994 after spending 27 years in jail for his activism against apartheid in a racially-divided South Africa.  (Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)
PRETORIA, SOUTH AFRICA - DECEMBER 14: South African president Jacob Zuma speaks during an African National Congress (ANC) led alliance send off ceremony at Waterkloof military airbase on December 14, 2013 in Pretoria, South Africa. The ANC held an official send off ceremony as the body of former South African President prepares to make one final journey to his hometown of Qunu for burial. Mr. Mandela passed away on the evening of December 5, 2013 at his home in Houghton at the age of 95. Mandela became South Africa's first black president in 1994 after spending 27 years in jail for his activism against apartheid in a racially-divided South Africa. (Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

JOHANNESBURG, South Africa — Among the motley crew gathered on the steps of South Africa’s highest court on April 6 stood elders of the African National Congress (ANC), angry and ashamed.

The court had found President Jacob Zuma in breach of the constitution for his failure to pay back millions in taxpayer money spent on Nkandla, his expansive private residence that boasts an amphitheater and helipad, among other amenities. It was a humiliating blow for the embattled Zuma, who was already under fire for unnerving investors by sacking a respected finance minister and for his cozy relationship with a wealthy Indian family accused of meddling in cabinet appointments.

But in the weeks since the court’s ruling, Zuma has stubbornly refused to resign. Addressing the nation on April 1, he apologized only for causing “confusion and frustration” — not for misappropriating state resources or for defying an ombudsperson who previously ordered him to return some of the funds.

For many South Africans, Zuma has finally gone too far. The big question now is whether the ANC agrees.

While it is still revered as the party that led the struggle against apartheid, the shine has long worn off the ANC in the eyes of many South Africans. Many vote for the party of Nelson Mandela out of habit or loyalty, despite their unhappiness with the country’s condition 20 years after the transition to democracy. The gap between white and black incomes is higher today than it was under apartheid, and ANC cadres have often seemed more interested in enriching themselves than in improving the lives of ordinary people. But Zuma’s brand of sleaze has sunk the ANC’s public image to new depths.

For now, ANC parliamentarians have publicly rallied behind the unapologetic president, voting down an April 5 impeachment motion introduced by the main opposition party, the Democratic Alliance. But a growing number of party stalwarts seem to be coming to the conclusion that Zuma will have to be sacrificed in order to save the ANC.

Cheryl Carolus, the ANC’s former deputy secretary-general, described the last few weeks as a “frog-in-the-pot” moment, implying that the party must part ways with the president or else risk being consumed by the mess he has made. “All of us need to wake up and fix this on our watch, or history has every right to judge us,” she said in a press conference on the steps of the Constitutional Court.

Other ANC heavyweights, including Mandela’s close friend and former lawyer, George Bizos, former Finance Minister Trevor Manuel, and an influential group of children of party leaders who were born and raised in exile, have publically called on Zuma to resign. In private, the ANC’s top leadership, known as the “top six,” have reportedly asked him to step aside. And on April 27, a group of party veterans, clergymen, and civil society leaders calling themselves the People’s Consultative Assembly will hold a “day of action” to “reclaim a freedom that has been stolen by Zuma and his cronies,” according to Duma Gqubule, the group’s spokesman.

The sudden evaporation of support puts Zuma in uncharted waters. William Gumede, chairman of the Democracy Works Foundation, a Johannesburg-based think tank, said that no other South African president has faced such a broad-based revolt. When former President Thabo Mbeki was asked to step down by the ANC in 2008, a request to which he acquiesced, it was due to his unpopularity within the party. “What we are seeing with Zuma now is inside and outside the party,” Gumede said. “The opposition is so widespread.”

Zuma, a former head of ANC intelligence during the anti-apartheid struggle, rose to power within the party at its 2007 elective conference. A Zulu traditionalist with a populist touch, he stood out as an antidote to Mbeki, who many considered to be aloof and overly cerebral. But Zuma’s political career has always been marred by scandals, including accusations that he raped a family friend (he was acquitted in 2006) and corruption charges related to a 1999 arms deal.

Outrage over Zuma’s use of public funds to upgrade his private residence in Nkandla had simmered for years before the court recently ruled it unconstitutional. But the day the president lost the confidence of many South Africans for good was Dec. 9, 2015, when he sacked respected Finance Minister Nhlanhla Nene and replaced him with a little-known backbencher who was thought to be more pliable. The move shook investors’ confidence and sent the already weak South African rand into a tailspin, forcing the president to reverse course.

“This was Zuma totally over-judging,” said Susan Booysen, author of Dominance and Decline: The ANC in the Time of Zuma. “That was such an irrational decision. It was the arrogance of Zuma that really tipped the scales and provided the trigger.”

Opposition to Zuma has gathered steam since then, fueled in part by revelations that members of the Gupta family, close friends of the president that run a multibillion-rand business empire in South Africa, had exercised undue influence in the president’s cabinet appointments. One such revelation came from Mcebisi Jonas, the deputy finance minister, who said the Guptas had offered him the ministry’s top job.

“We have definitely seen a turn away from Zuma dominance in the ANC,” Booysen said. “But the ANC is a big ship. It doesn’t turn easily.”

But as bad as things look for the South African president, few expect him to exit the stage ahead of local government elections, scheduled for Aug. 3. This is partly because he retains significant support among rural voters and key constituencies within the party and partly because the ANC itself is too fragmented to allow for a unified push to oust him.

“It would take an extraordinary event for him to be relieved of his responsibility,” said Ralph Mathekga, a political analyst and founder of Clear Content, a Johannesburg-based think tank. “It would take a new type of campaign within the ANC, and I don’t know if that space exists.”

Zuma may be loathed by the urban elite, but he is still wildly popular in rural South Africa, particularly in his home province of KwaZulu-Natal, where he retains support from key structures within the party, including the ANC Women’s League and Youth League. He also enjoys the support of a powerful group of provincial premiers, known collectively as the “Premier League.”

This base of support allows Zuma to exploit the hierarchical structure of the ANC, which is organized into some 3,000 local branches, represented by regional and provincial committees, as well as by a national executive elected at five yearly conferences. For the president to be forced out, the national executive would have to ask him to step aside, as it did with Mbeki — something it is unlikely to do unless it comes under sustained pressure from the branches.

But despite growing opposition to Zuma among party elites, the vast majority of ANC branches throughout the country have so far stood behind the president, perhaps because they do not wish to be seen as capitulating to the opposition. The only exceptions are ANC branches in Gauteng, the affluent province that includes Johannesburg and Pretoria. The Gauteng ANC, dominated by urban intellectuals, has long been anti-Zuma, campaigning against him as far back as 2012, when it opposed his re-election as president of the ANC.

“The only way in which you can have an internal recourse on this, against Zuma, is if there is a mutiny at the branch level of the party. But that mutiny is highly unlikely,” said Mathekga.

But if most analysts agree that Zuma will likely remain in office until after the Aug. 3 elections, there is also broad consensus that a poor showing at the polls by the ANC, particularly in the key metropolises of Johannesburg, Tshwane (which includes Pretoria), and Nelson Mandela Bay, could finally tip the scales against him. Also potentially decisive is a pending court decision on whether to reopen an investigation into 783 charges of corruption, fraud, and money-laundering against Zuma, all of which were dropped just before he became president in 2009.

In either case, the ANC will likely try to convince Zuma to step down voluntarily. A public showdown would only force more of the party’s dirty laundry out into the open and could potentially cause the group to splinter.

“Within the ANC, they seem to be scared that if Zuma is forced out, he may take quite a few supporters with him,” said Gumede.

Still, the growing anti-Zuma chorus is something “totally different” for the party, he said. “Everybody is mobilizing.… The ANC has lost control.”

Photo credit: JUSTIN SULLIVAN/Getty Images

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