Ruling party's vote against President Jacob Zuma deepens uncertainty in South Africa

Tuesday , February 13, 2018 - 12:30 PM

Krista Mahr

Special To The Washington Post.

JOHANNESBURG - South Africa’s ruling African National Congress party formally recalled President Jacob Zuma, forcing a long-brewing showdown over whether the embattled leader will submit his resignation or seek his own terms to step down after nearly a decade in power.

Pressure on Zuma, who has been wracked by corruption allegations, has mounted over the past few months, throwing the leadership of Africa’s most robust and diverse economy into limbo. Although his departure no longer seems in doubt, it’s unclear how much he could resist a speedy exit and the degree of turmoil he will leave behind.

The timing is critical. South Africa is grappling with unemployment, endemic corruption, a slowing economy, and water shortages that threaten to leave its second-biggest city, Cape Town, with taps running dry.

“We are expecting the president to respond [Wednesday],” ANC Secretary General Ace Magashule told a packed media room at the ANC headquarters in downtown Johannesburg on Tuesday.

The party, he said, expected Zuma to accede to their wishes. “I don’t know what will happen. Let’s leave it to President Jacob Zuma.”

Zuma, whose nine years in office have been dogged by corruption scandals and seen a decline in the popularity of Nelson Mandela’s historic anti-apartheid movement, lost ANC support after being replaced as party leader in December.

Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa, the new ANC president, is expected to become acting president if Zuma steps down.

Magashule said that Zuma had “agreed in principle” to resign, but that he had asked for three to six months to step down. He said the party wanted to act sooner to provide “certainty to the people of South Africa at a time when the economic and social challenges facing the country require urgent and resolute response by all sections of society.”

He noted that the decision to recall Zuma was not unanimous within the leadership meeting, but that the party would now rally behind the decision.

The news was welcomed by party faithful outside ANC headquarters. “I think the NEC [National Executive Committee] has made the best suited decision under the circumstances,” said Sifiso Nkutha, a 38-year-old party member standing nearby.

The opposition can “keep calling for regime change,” he said, but “they will never see that. Never while the ANC lives and breathes in South Africa.”

Others were irritated upon hearing that Zuma hadn’t yet agreed to resign.

“He’s just too stubborn,” said Lebo Sobopha, a 27-year-old student who lives in Soweto. “He’s not doing anything for the country. He’s just doing things for himself.”

If Zuma does not resign, he could face a vote of no confidence against him in Parliament, which would force him and his cabinet members to step down, and the parliamentary speaker would assume the role of acting president.

“The one thing we’ve learned is never to try to guess what Zuma might do,” said Lawson Naidoo, executive secretary of the Council for the Advancement of the South African Constitution. “He’s a desperate man at the moment.”

The extraordinary 24 hours follows a chaotic political week in South Africa, in which Ramaphosa and Zuma sat in closed-door talks to negotiate the terms of his departure. On Sunday, during a speech in Cape Town, Ramaphosa pledged that the party’s top brass would “finalize” those talks Monday.

“Our people want this matter to be finalized, the national executive committee (NEC) will be doing precisely that,” Ramaphosa said. “It is the interests of you, our people, that must be put first, and not the interests of anyone else.”

To Zuma’s critics, the president’s early departure - his term as head of state is not up until national elections next year - would mark the end of a frustrating era in which the nation drifted and Zuma’s name has become nearly synonymous with the use of the public office for personal gain.

It wasn’t always so. Zuma rose to power as an anti-apartheid struggle veteran with a knack for connecting with his rural base. Many South Africans welcomed his election in 2009 after the technocratic government Thabo Mbeki.

Ironically, Zuma could be ousted by the same methods he once orchestrated against Mbeki.

Mbeki sacked Zuma in 2005 from his post as deputy president after Zuma was implicated in corruption allegations. After his ouster, Zuma maneuvered his way back to power and was elected ANC president in a stunning political comeback just two years later.

In 2008, Mbeki was recalled as president by the Zuma-led party after a court ruled that Mbeki had interfered in the work of government prosecutors. Mbeki followed the party’s lead and resigned from office, paving the way for Zuma’s ascent as head of state.

But nearly a decade later, many of the promises of a better life in a democratic South Africa have slipped away on Zuma’s watch. The number of people living in poverty and extreme poverty both increased by about 3 million from 2011 to 2015.

The unemployment rate hovers at more than 27 percent. The under-resourced public health and education sectors struggle to deliver to nearly 57 million South Africans, and the economy, one of the largest and most sophisticated in Africa, dipped briefly into recession last year.

South Africans also have become fed up with corruption allegations engulfing Zuma and some of his family members and friends.

Zuma has become the ultimate “Teflon president” in recent years, surviving several opposition-led attempts in parliament to unseat him. Opposition politicians also have been trying to get 18 charges of fraud, corruption and other crimes against him reinstated that were dropped before he became president. He has denied wrongdoing.

In March 2016, Zuma was found to have “failed to uphold” the constitution after ignoring an order by the government’s anti-corruption watchdog to pay back millions spent on nonsecurity upgrades to his private estate, Nkandla, including a swimming pool and cattle pen. Zuma apologized to the nation and paid back the mandated sum.

In October that same year, the watchdog had another instruction for Zuma: appoint a commission of inquiry into allegations that a wealthy family, the Guptas, used their proximity to Zuma to build up their business empire. A subsequent flood of emails leaked to the South African media, known as the “Gupta Leaks,” catalogued more examples of similar alleged improprieties and infuriated South African voters. Zuma and the Guptas have denied any wrongdoing.

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