ANC support shields Zuma in South African impeachment vote

South African President Jacob Zuma is set to escape impeachment for violating the constitution, as the leadership of the ruling African National Congress rallies around him.

The National Assembly, where the ANC has a 62 percent majority, will vote Tuesday whether to dismiss Zuma, 73, for serious misconduct. The ballot follows a Constitutional Court ruling that he violated the law by refusing to abide by a directive of the nation’s graft ombudsman to repay taxpayers’ money spent on his upgrading private home. ANC Secretary-General Gwede Mantashe dismissed the impeachment bid by the main opposition Democratic Alliance as a publicity stunt ahead of municipal elections.

“The constitution is very specific about the removal of the president,” Mantashe told reporters in Cape Town late on Monday after ANC leaders decided at a meeting to back Zuma. “It says there has to be a serious breach of the constitution or the law, and the judgment does not use the word serious at all.”

The Constitutional Court ruling and the impeachment vote mark a low point for Zuma’s seven-year-old administration, which has been marred by scandal and controversy. Criticism of his government has intensified since December when his decision to replace his respected finance minister, Nhlanhla Nene, with a little-known lawmaker sparked a selloff of the rand and the nation’s bonds.

The scandal has further dented confidence in an administration that’s struggling to revive a stagnating economy and cut a 25 percent unemployment rate. The rand has slumped 21 percent against the dollar over the past 12 months, the most of 16 major currencies monitored by Bloomberg, while the nation’s credit rating is at risk of being cut to junk.

“The ANC are clearly not going to throw Zuma under the bus and risk splitting the party down the middle,” Abdul Waheed Patel, managing director of Cape Town-based Ethicore Political Consulting, said by phone. “While the impeachment vote won’t be successful, I think it will push the ANC to defend violating the constitution. It’s going to make the ANC look pretty bad from a public perception point of view.”

ANC Criticism

Zuma’s position has been further undermined by allegations by senior ANC officials that a wealthy Indian family who are his friends and are in business with his son offered them cabinet posts in exchange for business concessions. The ANC leadership is currently investigating those accusations, which the Gupta family denies.

Opposition parties aren’t the only ones criticizing Zuma — a number of senior ANC officials, civil rights groups and church leaders have also called for him to step down.

“Once our actions are seen to be incongruent with this important document of our democracy, we must know we have moved away from our duty to serve our people,” Finance Minister Pravin Gordhan said in a speech Monday. “This organization, the ANC, has been at the forefront of the struggle for most of the 20th century and we should rediscover and reclaim its original purpose.”

Communist Anger

The South African Communist Party, an ally of the ANC, said the court ruling required a more decisive response.

“It is unconscionable that opposition parties old and new, with tarnished origins, have been gifted with the opportunity to occupy the moral and political high ground within the National Assembly,” it said in an e-mailed statement. “We call on the ANC parliamentary caucus not to be narrowly defensive in the necessary introspection that must now follow.”

The ANC’s former intelligence chief, Zuma took office in May 2009, just weeks after prosecutors dropped graft charges against him. His allies dominate the ANC’s National Executive Committee, one of its top decision-making structures, and key positions in government.

In a televised address on April 1, the president said his failure to abide by Public Protector Thuli Madonsela’s directive to repay some of the 215.9 million rand ($14.5 million) spent on a swimming pool and animal enclosures at his home in the eastern KwaZulu-Natal province was due to a different interpretation of her powers.

Zuma Apology

While Zuma apologized for the frustration and confusion the scandal had caused, he said he acted in good faith and never intentionally did anything illegal. He pledged to comply with the court order to repay an amount that the National Treasury will set.

“When President Zuma violated the constitution, he threatened the very fabric of our constitutional democracy,” the Democratic Alliance said in an e-mailed statement. “It is now time to put South Africa and the constitution first again. Anything less will be an insult to our constitutional democracy.”

Opposition political parties held a joint meeting in Cape Town on Tuesday to discuss their tactics ahead of the impeachment vote.

“The ANC is never going to remove Zuma on the back of pressure from opposition parties or civil society,” Ethicore’s Patel said. “Internally the balance of forces are in his favor.”