Ramaphosa backed by South African unions as next ANC leader

South African Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa won the backing of the nation’s biggest labor federation to succeed President Jacob Zuma as leader of the governing African National Congress. The rand strengthened.

The decision by the 1.9 million-member Congress of South African Trade Unions, a key ally of the ANC, came after an “intense and robust debate,” Cosatu Secretary-General Bheki Ntshalintshali told reporters Thursday in Johannesburg. “We shall work to lobby and influence the ANC structures to support comrade Cyril Ramaphosa as the next leader of the movement.”

Ramaphosa, 64, and Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, Zuma’s 67-year-old ex-wife whose time as chairwoman of the African Union Commission ends in January, are seen as the front-runners to succeed Zuma at the ANC’s elective conference due in December next year. The leader of the party, which has a majority in parliament, will probably become president in a national vote in 2019.

Ramaphosa, a lawyer who co-founded the National Union of Mineworkers, 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.

Rand Gains

The rand reversed losses, gaining as much as 0.9 percent against the dollar after the announcement, and was 0.2 percent stronger at 14.1265 per dollar at 12:46 p.m. in Johannesburg on Thursday.

Other potential contenders for ANC leader could be Zweli Mkhize, 60, the party’s treasurer-general and former premier of KwaZulu-Natal province, and Baleka Mbete, 67, the speaker of parliament and ANC chairwoman.

While Cosatu’s endorsement will boost Ramaphosa’s chances of becoming president, the succession race remains wide open, said Roger Southall, an emeritus professor of sociology at the University of Witwatersrand in Johannesburg.

“Cosatu has much less influence over the ANC than it used to have,” he said by phone. “Dlamini-Zuma is still around in the picture.”

Zuma Quit

Two of Cosatu’s affiliates, the National Health and Allied Workers Union and Communication Workers Union, urged Zuma this month to step down as president before his current term ends in 2019, following his implication in a number of scandals and the ANC’s worst-ever electoral performance in a local government vote in August.

Cosatu will discuss the issue with the ANC and hasn’t taken a position on whether Zuma should remain in office, said Zingiswa Losi, Cosatu’s second deputy president.

This month, the ANC urged Cosatu not to become involved in its succession debate.

“The ANC does not meddle in the election of leadership of Cosatu and its affiliates,” the party said in a Nov. 18 statement. “The succession debate of the ANC will be led by the ANC at a moment organizationally determined by the ANC.”