Will the Party of Nelson Mandela Die So That Jacob Zuma Can Live?

South Africa’s Teflon president has survived six attempts on his political life. Even if he survives a seventh, the damage to Africa’s most storied liberation movement is done.

South Africa President Jacob Zuma speaks during the funeral ceremony of South African former president Nelson Mandela in Qunu on December 15, 2013. Mandela, the revered icon of the anti-apartheid struggle in South Africa and one of the towering political figures of the 20th century, died in Johannesburg on December 5 at age 95.  AFP PHOTO / POOL / ODD ANDERSEN        (Photo credit should read ODD ANDERSEN/AFP/Getty Images)
South Africa President Jacob Zuma speaks during the funeral ceremony of South African former president Nelson Mandela in Qunu on December 15, 2013. Mandela, the revered icon of the anti-apartheid struggle in South Africa and one of the towering political figures of the 20th century, died in Johannesburg on December 5 at age 95. AFP PHOTO / POOL / ODD ANDERSEN (Photo credit should read ODD ANDERSEN/AFP/Getty Images)

JOHANNESBURG — President Jacob Zuma sat with crossed arms under a tent in Bloemfontein, one of South Africa’s three national capitals, waiting for the crowd to settle down and let him speak.

The crowd never did.

For more than an hour, a jeering throng of trade unionists refused to let the president get on stage to make his annual May Day speech on May 1, instead raising their fists and shouting, “Zuma must go!” Leaders of the country’s largest federation of trade unions, COSATU, which has been allied with Zuma’s ruling African National Congress (ANC) since 1990, pleaded with their rank and file to let the rally continue. Eventually, Zuma stood up, smiled and shook a few hands, and then left the grounds in his shiny motorcade.

So it goes these days in South Africa, where the scandal-plagued Zuma is dragging Africa’s most storied liberation movement to historic depths. The Teflon president has survived six attempts by the opposition to oust him from office, even as fresh allegations of corruption and cronyism pile up against him. But the ANC has not been so lucky, having sustained what may be lasting damage every time it is forced to stand behind its increasingly unpopular leader. Now, with 2019 elections looming large, the party must grapple with a previously inconceivable notion: being voted out of power by the country’s black majority.

On Aug. 8, Zuma, who is 75, will run the gantlet again, when lawmakers vote on yet another motion of no confidence that could cost him his job. As he has done time and again, most analysts expect Zuma to survive on the back of the ANC’s parliamentary majority. (The ANC holds nearly 250 of the National Assembly’s 400 seats while the Democratic Alliance, the next largest party and the one that tabled the motion, has only 89.)

But there is at least a small chance that this time could be different. The ANC’s famously united front has begun to fracture in recent months. Infighting between the party’s pro- and anti-Zuma factions erupted publicly in March, after Zuma sacked his respected finance minister, a move that caused the country’s credit rating to be downgraded to junk.

More recently, as emails leaked to the local press have implicated Zuma and his allies in an influence-peddling scandal involving the wealthy Gupta family, more ANC members have publicly distanced themselves from the president, the latest being Mondli Gungubele, who in late July said he planned to vote against Zuma on Aug. 8. The party slammed him for being out of order, calling his decision to speak to the press “the most extreme form of ill-discipline.”

Perhaps most importantly, the vote will be conducted by secret ballot, instead of the usual open electronic voting system, which will shield ANC parliamentarians from party retribution if they turn on their leader. The opposition had been campaigning hard for a secret ballot, and in a surprise decision Monday, National Assembly Speaker Baleka Mbete announced the procedural change.

But even with the cloak of anonymity, there is no guarantee that a critical mass of ANC parliamentarians will break rank. ANC members who vote against Zuma face losing their jobs no matter what, according to Aubrey Matshiqi, an independent political analyst in Johannesburg. “They are defending their own personal interests” by supporting Zuma, he said, since a leadership shake-up could end up costing members of the rank and file their seats when the party’s list of candidates — the order of which determines seat allocations in South Africa’s list system of proportional representation — is compiled afresh by the new leaders. “If leaders are replaced, they are replaced by party processes,” said Steven Friedman, a professor of politics at the University of Johannesburg.

Even if Zuma survives yet again, the damage to the ANC may already be done. No-confidence motions are terrific political theater, and they force the ruling party to defend the wildly unpopular Zuma on center stage. (Sixty-five percent of respondents in a May poll by eNCA/Ipsos said he should resign.)

“The disrespect for the current ANC as it has become is really pretty widespread,” said Susan Booysen, a politics professor at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg. “The ANC is really in an existential crisis.”

Electoral numbers tell a similar story. The ANC’s support has dropped from nearly 70 percent in 2004 national polls to just over 62 percent in 2014. In the last local elections, in August 2016, the party had its worst-ever showing, losing control of the key cities of Johannesburg and Tshwane and the longtime ANC stronghold of Nelson Mandela Bay. The rejoinder to the party’s dwindling popularity in cities has been that its rural support base is stronger, but when two-thirds of South Africans live in cities, the overall trend lines don’t bode well for the party.

Much of the electoral damage has been done by Zuma himself. “His image crisis has caused collateral damage to the image of the party,” Matshiqi said. “The factions that support him have become a metaphor for everything venal and corrupt in the state.”

Zuma is due to step down as party leader in December, although he could stay on as head of state until 2019. But the ANC is likely to feel the effects of his embattled tenure for many years after that. In the last few months, there have been rumblings of a potential political earthquake: COSATU and the South African Communist Party (SACP), both of which have backed the ANC for the last 27 years, have signaled that their allegiance to the party of Nelson Mandela is not unconditional. Both have called on Zuma to step down, and the SACP recently said it will contest future elections on its own, instead of running candidates under the ANC banner as it has done since 1994. COSATU plans to formally consult its members in order to decide whether or not the alliance should continue.

“Do we keep the alliance, or do we accept that it has failed?” said Sizwe Pamla, COSATU’s national spokesman. “That will be up to the workers.”

With 1.7 million members, most of whom support the ANC, the loss of COSATU’s support is no small matter in a country where 26.3 million people were registered to vote in 2016. Zuma has been “reckless,” Pamla said. “His family has been looting, his friends have been looting, and in the process he has weakened the state, divided the ANC, divided the alliance. We continue to deal with the mess, and it will take a long time to clean up.”

The ANC’s official reaction to dissension within its ranks has only left it looking more divided. In recent weeks, party leaders have been slugging it out in the local press with ANC parliamentarians who are speaking out against Zuma. On Mandela’s birthday on July 18, ANC parliamentarian Makhosi Khoza from KwaZulu-Natal, Zuma’s home area, lashed out at Zuma and the party, calling on the president to step aside and saying she was trying to “rescue the little that is left, if any, in my organization’s moral conscience.” The KwaZulu-Natal chapter of the ANC’s women’s league noted with “disgust” Khoza’s “unscrupulous behavior.”

But the ANC’s declining fortunes are not the doing of one man. Zuma may have become a symbol of all that’s wrong with South Africa, but he is not the cause of all that is wrong with it. Twenty-three years after the country’s first free elections, the majority of South Africans are still effectively excluded from the economy. Official unemployment hovers just below 30 percent, and the nation is ranked among the most unequal societies in the world. The failure of the ANC to address these problems in more than two decades in power has inflicted longer-lasting damage on the party than any one president could inflict. “Zuma is simply a symptom of that” broader failure, Friedman said. “It’s not him. It’s them.”

Photo credit: ODD ANDERSEN/AFP/Getty Images

Krista Mahr is an American journalist based in Johannesburg. She previously covered South Asia for Time and Reuters.

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