Johannesburg - Splits are widening in South Africa’s ruling African National Congress (ANC) over President Jacob Zuma’s leadership and a decision by prosecutors to charge Finance Minister Pravin Gordhan.
The depth of the unease in the party was revealed on Sunday when the ANC’s chief whip in Parliament, Jackson Mthembu, said members of the National Executive Committee (NEC) - including Zuma and his deputy Cyril Ramaphosa - should all step down from the party’s decision-making body. Unless the ANC changes course, it risks losing power in 2019 general elections, he told Johannesburg’s City Press newspaper.
The public has lost confidence in the ANC “because of factional behavior, because of arrogance, and now, under our watch, a sitting minister is spuriously charged with fraud”, Mthembu, who sits on the NEC, told Johannesburg-based broadcaster eNCA. “Perhaps we are not the leadership that can take the ANC forward.”
Mthembu’s comments signal a deepening crisis in the ANC’s leadership at a time when the government is battling to stave off a credit-rating downgrade to junk.
Opposition to Zuma’s leadership has coalesced around Gordhan, who’s clashed with the president over the management of the national tax agency and state companies as well as the affordability of nuclear power plants Zuma wants to build, since being appointed to his post in December.
Prosecutors said this month they planned to charge Gordhan for illegally allowing a tax agency official to retire and be rehired on a temporary contract during a previous stint as finance minister.
Opposition parties, analysts and increasing numbers of ANC leaders say the case is a political stitch-up aimed at allowing Zuma to appoint a more pliant head of the National Treasury. Gordhan, who’s due to appear in court on November 2, denies wrongdoing.
Zuma has been able to count on the NEC to shield him from a series of scandals since he became president in 2009, including a Constitutional Court ruling that he violated his oath of office by ignoring a directive by the public protector to repay taxpayer funds spent on upgrading his private home.
His refusal to quit, coupled with allegations that a wealthy family has wielded influence over his government, known as “state capture,” and a sluggish economy all contributed to the ANC’s worst-ever electoral performance in a local elections in August.
“Mthembu’s comments indicate an unprecedented level of conflict among senior ANC leaders,” Anthony Butler, a politics professor at the University of Cape Town, said by phone.
Calls for Zuma to resign or be fired have also come from Save South Africa, a group that’s led by Sipho Pityana, the chairperson of gold producer AngloGold Ashanti [JSE:ANG], and backed by former finance minister Trevor Manuel, civil-rights and church groups. It intends staging a protest outside the courthouse in Pretoria when Gordhan is due to appear.
“Attacks on National Treasury are nothing less than an unbridled attempt at further state capture and designed to get unfettered access to state resources,” the group said in a statement on Sunday.
“We must send a strong message that when our sovereignty is threatened we are able to transcend our differences in defence of the motherland.”
Mthembu declined to comment further when contacted on his mobile phone. ANC spokesperson Zizi Kodwa said party leaders were accountable to the branches that elected them and they wouldn’t quit.
There’s little chance the NEC will resign because “it is the sovereign decision-making body of the ANC between leadership conferences and the party has no structure to disband it”, Butler said.
Zuma, whose second term as ANC leader is due to end late next year and his second and final term as president in 2019, has denied intentionally breaking the law.
The Democratic Alliance has said it will table a motion of no confidence in Zuma in Parliament by the end of the year. The ANC, which controls 62% of the seats in Parliament, has easily seen off several previous opposition attempts to dismiss the president.
Asked if the ANC would allow its lawmakers to decide how they would vote this time around, Mthembu said: “When the time comes, the ANC will deal with it.”
Despite the rising criticism, Butler still expects the ANC to rally around Zuma and deal with its leadership disputes internally.
“They see whatever strife there is in the party as a family affair that has little, if nothing, to do with anyone else,” he said.