by: Joseph Cotterill in Johannesburg
South Africa’s Jacob Zuma has survived the most serious revolt of his presidency, defeating a vote to force him out as the country’s leader that has nevertheless laid bare divisions at the top of the ruling African National Congress and threatens to paralyse his government.
Mr Zuma and his allies in the party were said to have thwarted the no-confidence vote at a meeting of the ANC’s national executive committee in Pretoria after hours of heated argument late into Monday evening.
The ANC was due to announce the outcome of the meeting later on Tuesday, with no changes to Mr Zuma’s planned schedule to depart for Cuba to attend Fidel Castro’s funeral.
But Mr Zuma’s faction was taken by surprise by the scale of the attack, which was supported by three of his own cabinet ministers.
The confrontation, at the highest levels of the ANC and in a forum that is packed with loyalists to Mr Zuma, has brought to a head months of discord in the party over alleged corruption under his presidency.
The president could now respond to the revolt with a cabinet reshuffle that would disrupt economic decision-making at a time when growth is sluggish and unemployment at more than 27 per cent.
Rejection by the NEC — the ANC’s most powerful body, outside the five-yearly conferences where the party picks policies and leaders — would have dealt a decisive blow to Mr Zuma’s authority as president while he stayed on as ANC leader until a planned succession next year.
But even fallout from a failed attack on Mr Zuma could plunge Africa’s oldest liberation movement into a fully-fledged break-up, after years of mounting fractures in the ANC over his leadership.
“The ANC was a divided organisation already,” said Prince Mashele, a political analyst at the Pretoria-based Centre for Politics and Research. “This meeting has cemented the division … we are now at a point where there are many ANCs.”
On Friday, Fitch Ratings and Moody’s highlighted ANC infighting as a risk to South Africa’s economic growth in their negative outlooks on the country’s credit rating, with S&P Global Ratings due to decide at the end of this week whether to downgrade its rating to junk.
Mr Zuma’s opponents struck after rising concerns that the ANC could lose power for the first time since it overthrew apartheid in 1994, unless it forces Mr Zuma from office well before national elections in 2019, when he is due to step down.
The most serious setback to date has been a report published this month by South Africa’s public protector, similar to an ombudsman, detailing evidence of alleged corruption and the so-called “capture” of the state during Mr Zuma’s presidency.
The report focused on his ties to the Gupta business family, who have been accused of pre-vetting cabinet appointments. They deny the allegations, as does Mr Zuma.
Mr Zuma has also been beset by a court judgment this year that ruled he violated the constitution over taxpayer-funded improvements to his private home, and the legacy of a crisis sparked last December when he abruptly fired Nhlanhla Nene, the respected finance minister.
The ANC’s loss of power in big cities in local elections in August, where its share of the national vote fell below 60 per cent for the first time ever, increased calls in the party for Mr Zuma to resign.
Recent fraud charges — later dropped — against Pravin Gordhan, the current finance minister, emboldened these calls further after what was seen as plotting by Mr Zuma that damaged the economy.
With further challenges to his leadership likely over the coming months, Mr Zuma may attempt to shore up his appeal among ordinary ANC members in branches across the country — particularly in provinces such as KwaZulu-Natal and Mpumalanga where he remains popular.
Written by The Financial Times