South African President Jacob Zuma’s chances of serving out a second term may have dimmed after being implicated in a new graft probe and that could tip the race to succeed him in favor of his deputy Cyril Ramaphosa.
Ramaphosa, 63, and Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, Zuma’s 67-year-old ex-wife whose term as chairwoman of the African Union Commission ends in January, are regarded as front-runners to take over from Zuma as leader of the ruling African National Congress next year, and possibly president in 2019. Under the constitution, should Zuma resign, Ramaphosa would automatically become acting president for a maximum of 30 days while the National Assembly elects a replacement from its members.
Zuma’s early exit may “circumvent the possibility of Dlamini-Zuma coming in,” Dirk Kotze, a politics professor at the University of South Africa, said by phone from Pretoria, the capital. “It provides Ramaphosa with a major advantage. It will, in a sense, resolve the succession process by default.”
Ramaphosa has a breadth of experience few can match in South Africa. A lawyer who co-founded the National Union of Mineworkers, he helped negotiate a peaceful end to apartheid and draft South Africa’s first democratic constitution. He lost out to Thabo Mbeki in the contest to succeed Nelson Mandela as president in 1999 and went into business, securing control of the McDonald’s franchise in South Africa and amassing a fortune before returning to full-time politics in 2012 as ANC deputy president.
ANC veterans, opposition parties and civil rights and religious groups have called for Zuma to resign after the Constitutional Court found in March that he violated his oath of office by refusing to repay taxpayer money spent on his private home. The campaign gained impetus this week when prosecutors dropped fraud charges against Finance Minister Pravin Gordhan that he said were aimed at removing him from the post. The graft ombudsman then released a report saying Zuma may have breached the code of ethics in his relationship with the Gupta family, who are his friends and in business with his son. Zuma, who has denied ever intentionally breaking the law, is considering whether to challenge the findings in court.
The controversies came on the heels of the ANC’s worst electoral performance since the end of apartheid in a municipal vote in August when the party lost control of Pretoria and the financial hub of Johannesburg.
The Democratic Alliance, the main opposition party, said it’s received provisional confirmation that a motion of no-confidence in Zuma that it introduced will be debated in the National Assembly on Nov. 10. The ANC, which has dominated South African politics since it took power in the first all-race elections in 1994, has used its 62 percent majority in parliament to defeat several previous opposition attempts to unseat Zuma.
Parliament can oust the president if he seriously violates the constitution or is guilty of grave misconduct, or lawmakers can force him to resign by passing a motion of no-confidence in him. It would also be untenable for Zuma to continue in office without the backing of the ANC’s National Executive Committee.
This week Ramaphosa won the support of the 300,000-member National Health and Allied Workers Union when it urged Zuma to quit and endorsed Ramaphosa to replace him. The South African Democratic Teachers Union, National Union of Mineworkers and Police and Prisons Civil Rights Union are also set to call for Zuma’s resignation, Business Day, a Johannesburg-based newspaper, reported Wednesday, citing union officials it didn’t identify.
Before that public union support, Dlamini-Zuma appeared “very much in control of the succession race,” Daryl Glaser, a politics professor at the University of Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, said by phone on Thursday. “Cyril Ramaphosa has come back into the frame and as deputy president, he has a strong starting position.”
Even with his obvious advantages, some ANC factions, including members of the youth wing, say Ramaphosa is too close to big business and failed to fully back Zuma against his critics. He wouldn’t necessarily get the nod if Zuma resigned or was ousted early because the party could turn to someone else, according to some analysts.
The ANC leadership will ultimately decide whether to remove Zuma and who his replacement will be, according to Antony Butler, a politics professor at the University of Cape Town.
After the ANC removed Mbeki as president in 2008, the year after he lost control of the party to Zuma, the party deputy leader Kgalema Motlanthe temporarily filled the post until Zuma’s inauguration in May 2009.
“Should Zuma resign, or be removed, then it could actually be to the detriment of Ramaphosa,” Butler said by phone. “Motlanthe was urged to become caretaker president with the implied understanding that he would rise further up in the party ranks. Instead, he was left out in the cold.”
Other potential contenders in the presidential race include Zweli Mkhize, 60, the ANC’s treasurer-general and former premier of KwaZulu-Natal province, Motlanthe and Baleka Mbete, 66, the Speaker of Parliament and ANC chairwoman.
The ANC could manipulate its electoral lists and the parliamentary process to appoint new lawmakers, and ensure any chosen presidential candidate is eligible for election, according to Corne Mulder, a lawmaker for the opposition Freedom Front Plus and constitutional law expert. He expects the ANC to close ranks and for Zuma to serve out his full term.
Zuma has proved the ultimate political survivor and predicting when he will leave office or who will replace him is very difficult, according to Glaser.
“All one can say is that the pressure is building up on Zuma hugely,” Glaser said. “The ANC has no easy choices here. The record until now has been of the ANC being determined to simply soldier on.”