Jacob Zuma is not your average African leader

Jacob Zuma has suffered criticisms over the years as South Africa’s economic woes worsen. But the president will not push his luck when his second term ends in 2019.

The 73-year-old said South Africa shouldn’t change its constitution to enable a sitting president to stand for a third term in office.

“We are very clear about the two terms,” he told Bloomberg in an interview at his residence in Pretoria. “The issue does not arise at all. I think it is very healthy for us here in South Africa that we don’t stay forever.”

Zuma’s statement may sound strange to some, as history shows that an average African leader stays in power for as long as possible. Zuma’s fellow Southern African, Robert Mugabe has been president of Zimbabwe since 1987. Last year, it took violent protests to force Burkina Faso President Blaise Compaore out of office as he attempted to change the nation’s constitution to allow him to extend his 27-year rule. Others have been more subtle, following a democratic process to extend their rule.

The Republic of Congo voted this month to change its constitution, allowing President Denis Sassou-Nguesso to run for a third successive term in a referendum disputed by opposition parties. Rwanda is also planning a referendum on whether to change its law to allow Paul Kagame to contest elections again.

Jacob Zuma at the U.N
President of South Africa Jacob Zuma addresses attendees during the 70th session of the United Nations General Assembly at the U.N. headquarters in New York, September 28, 2015. REUTERS/Eduardo Munoz

But Zuma said: “To change the constitution, that has been a problem because once you have got a constitution and an understanding, you need to implement it. We should not, as presidents, turn against those decisions and the constitution. That’s what we think is not acceptable.”

The South African president explained that while the limitation on presidential terms has been widely accepted as a general idea to introduce democracy in Africa, the extension of those terms is acceptable when done through democratic processes.

“Countries move the way they want,” he said. “There are countries recently that have gone to a referendum, the people have said: ‘we still want this man, we think this man is still useful.’ It’s a democratic decision that is taken.”

However, such democratic decision to extend Zuma’s stay as South Africa’s president is very unlikely as his party the African National Congress (ANC) is losing membership in the country.

“Membership has dropped due to negative perceptions of the party,” Zuma told party delegates at a meeting near Johannesburg earlier in October.

“We must recognize that our majority has not been growing,” Zuma stressed, adding that party membership had shrunk 20 percent from one million in 2012 due to the state of the economy which has led to criticism that the ANC was a “self-serving organization.”

“The ANC needs to work harder to reverse the public perception that it is soft on corruption and that it is a corrupt organization,” he told he party members.

South Africa holds elections for the National Assembly and provincial legislatures every five years. Municipal councils elections follow two years later. The President is elected by the National Assembly, the lower house of Parliament, and is usually the leader of the largest party.

The ruling African National Congress has governed South Africa since the end of white-minority rule in 1994. The party, which won 62 percent of the vote in national elections, last year, is due to elect a successor to Zuma in two years. While the South African constitution restricts the number of terms the country’s president can serve, the ANC’s rules have no limits for the party leader.

“We are all guided by the ANC — it is the ANC that decides what happens to us as individuals,” Zuma said. “The ANC must take its time, it has its own processes wherein that matter will become clearer.”

The leading candidates to take over from Zuma are the ANC’s deputy leader and national deputy president, Cyril Ramaphosa, and Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, the chairwoman of the African Union Commission and the president’s ex-wife. Others include party chairwoman Baleka Mbete and treasurer Zweli Mkhize.