President Jacob Zuma’s chances of choosing an eventual successor are fading after South Africa’s top court found that he violated the constitution. That may be bad news for his ex-wife, Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma.
While Zuma, 74, is only due to step down as head of the ruling African National Congress in 2017 and as president in 2019, the contest to replace him is intensifying as calls mount from ANC veterans, civil rights groups and church officials for him to quit or be fired. The nation’s next leader will almost certainly come from the party since it’s won every vote since the end of apartheid 22 years ago by more than 60 percent.
The main contenders are Dlamini-Zuma, who divorced Zuma in 1998 and whose term as the chairwoman of the African Union Commission ends in July, and Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa. While Zuma may hope his ex-wife would help shield him from an opposition party bid to reinstate graft charges dropped just weeks before he became president in May 2009, his legal travails may undermine her chances, according to Zwelethu Jolobe, a politics lecturer at the University of Cape Town.
“The court ruling will limit the role Zuma plays in the ANC succession battle,” Jolobe said by phone. “An endorsement from Zuma would be tantamount to a poisoned chalice.”
Controversy has dogged Zuma’s political career. Prosecutors spent eight years investigating allegations that he took 4.07 million rand ($279,000) in bribes from arms dealers and charged him with corruption, racketeering, fraud and money laundering before abandoning the case. The main opposition Democratic Alliance have been fighting to have it reinstated ever since.
As president, Zuma’s been accused of making ill-advised appointments, abusing taxpayer funds and allowing the Gupta brothers, a wealthy Indian family that’s in business with his son, to peddle cabinet posts in exchange for business concessions — allegations he denies.
The biggest blow came on March 31, when the nation’s highest court ruled that Zuma “failed to uphold, defend and respect the constitution” by refusing to abide by a Public Protector directive to repay part of the 215.9 million rand of state funds spent on his private home. Zuma apologized for the confusion the scandal caused and said he never willingly broke the law — an explanation the ANC leadership says it accepts.
“The Jacob Zuma presidency has tainted the image of the ANC,” said Mcebisi Ndletyana, a politics professor at the University of Johannesburg. “If you hold the view that succession should be all about restoring the ANC back to decency and credibility, then you would not want to have a successor with links to Jacob Zuma.”
The damage Zuma has done to the ANC’s popularity was evident on Saturday, when the party attracted less than half the 100,000 people it expected for a rally in the southern town of Port Elizabeth where it unveiled its manifesto for Aug. 3 municipal elections.
The ANC discourages campaigning for posts, and lobbying takes place behind closed doors. Candidates will only be announced in the lead-up to party elections late next year.
Speculation that Dlamini-Zuma, 66, would make a bid has risen since she said she wouldn’t seek a second term as head of the AU commission. A medical doctor who previously served as minister of health, foreign affairs and home affairs, she has the backing of the ANC women’s league and parts of her home province of KwaZulu-Natal, which has the biggest concentration of ANC members.
Ramaphosa, 63, has been endorsed by the Congress of South African Trade Unions, the country’s largest labor group and an ally of the ANC. 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, amassing a fortune before returning to full-time politics in 2012 when he became ANC deputy president.
“My money is on Cyril,” Ndletyana said. “He is independent of the Zuma shenanigans. He would pretty much give the ANC a clean start.”
Ramaphosa’s reputation took a hit in 2012 when police shot dead 34 striking miners at Lonmin Plc’s Marikana platinum mines. Ramaphosa was a non-executive director of Lonmin at the time, and the opposition Economic Freedom Fighters said he was responsible for the deaths because he urged the government to act to end an illegal strike at the mines. Ramaphosa denied wrongdoing and a commission of inquiry absolved him of all responsibility.
Ramaphosa “has got that cloud of Marikana hanging over him,” said Joleen Steyn-Kotze, a politics professor at Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University, in the southern town of Port Elizabeth. She sees former President Kgalema Motlanthe, 66, and Baleka Mbete, 66, the speaker of Parliament and ANC chairwoman, as potential candidates.
The election race still has some way to run, and more contenders could emerge such as Zweli Mkhize, 60, the ANC’s treasurer-general and former premier of KwaZulu-Natal province, who has strong support within the ANC, said Jolobe.
“There isn’t a nationwide consensus on who the next president should be,” he said by phone. “I don’t think at the moment anybody is a clear front-runner. The scenario is too fluid.”