S. Africa’s ANC sticks with Zuma, risking eroding support

The African National Congress’s senior leaders absolved South African President Jacob Zuma of blame for the ruling party’s worst performance in an election, choosing to take collective responsibility and risking further eroding support before a national vote in less than three years.

Still, targeting him could have exposed factions within the party, leading to infighting and a possible split, analysts say.

“Taking collective responsibility is a refusal to take responsibility,” Aubrey Matshiqi, an analyst at the Helen Suzman Foundation, a Johannesburg-based research group, said on Monday. “Jacob Zuma, as an individual, must ask himself a question about whether staying on as the leader of the party is going to be good for the party.”

The ANC is caught in a dilemma of protecting Zuma, 74, and losing urban middle class supporters, many of whom shunned the party in local elections this month after a series of scandals surrounding its leader, and censuring him and laying bare opposing factions. While Zuma enjoys support in the decision-making National Executive Committee, which agreed to share the blame for the drop in support at a four-day meeting that ended Sunday, seven senior ANC leaders, including two ministers, last week said he was to blame for the election losses. They suggested the election of a new party leader. They asked not to be identified as their positions hadn’t been made public.

Falling Support

The ANC won 54.5 percent of the popular vote in the Aug. 3 election, down from 62.2 percent in a national vote two years ago, and gave up outright majorities in four of the country’s eight major cities. It now controls three metropolitan centers and is trying to hold onto Johannesburg, the biggest city and Pretoria, the capital, through coalition talks with smaller parties. Falling below 50 percent in 2019 will force the party to court opposition groups to keep control of the government.

The proposal of the president to step down “did not arise,” at the NEC meeting, ANC Secretary General Gwede Mantashe, 61, told reporters. “Should we blame one person for the performance of the ANC? Instead, it was decided that all the top leaders should take responsibility for the poor election.”

Zuma, a Zulu traditionalist who sometimes appears at rallies dressed in leopard skins and has four wives and at least 20 children, has played a leading role in alienating the ANC’s urban supporters. He has faced demands to quit since the nation’s top court found in March he violated the constitution by refusing to pay back taxpayer money spent on upgrading his rural home. Erratic decisions including firing a respected finance minister have contributed to the rand falling 38 percent against the dollar since he took power in 2009.

Party Factions

Removing Zuma and other senior leaders now could split the party, according to Ivor Sarakinsky, a senior lecturer at the Johannesburg-based University of the Witwatersrand’s School of Governance.

“If they act now and remove the current leadership, the splits, the factions and internal fighting might weaken the ANC more than holding on and just doing what needs to be done” at an elective congress next year, Sarakinsky said by phone Monday. “They’ve made a strategic calculation to just let the natural process unfold.”

The ANC, which had won more than 60 percent in every election since Nelson Mandela led it to power in 1994 to end apartheid, is facing a challenge from the broadly centrist Democratic Alliance, and the left wing Economic Freedom Fighters, formed by an expelled ANC youth wing leader three years ago. A fracture in the Congress of South African Trade Unions, the biggest labor federation that’s allied to the ANC, could also erode support for the ruling party.

Lost Ground

The ANC will choose new leaders in December 2017, when Zuma’s second five-year term as party leader ends. While Zuma would remain president of the country until national elections in 2019, new leadership of the ruling party could still have time to set fresh policies to try and reverse the decline in support.

“We can’t say that the ANC will not make up the ground that it’s lost, if it has lost it for the reason of having Jacob Zuma as its leader,”  Nic Borain, a Cape Town-based political analyst and adviser to BNP Paribas Securities South Africa, said by phone. “The ANC has through its processes of discussion for now, chosen a position that says: ‘The least damaging path for us, is to stick with our leader, gather around him because the alternative is to tear the ANC apart’.”