Zuma faces ‘acute conflation of forces’ as ANC leaders seek his ouster

Cape Town - President Jacob Zuma faces a key battle for his political survival this weekend when senior members of his ruling party say they’ll push for its decision-making National Executive Committee to order him to step down.

Zuma goes into the meeting of the committee facing an unprecedented level of opposition from within the African National Congress and its labour and communist supporters following a series of scandals he’s faced since he took office in 2009.

Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa echoed the South African Council of Churches on Sunday by saying the nation is at risk of becoming a “mafia state”.

READ: Mere talk of Zuma ouster spurs bets on the rand

While ANC spokesperson Zizi Kodwa denied that the option of Zuma’s ouster will feature at the three-day executive committee meeting that starts on Friday, four members of the panel said they would force it onto the agenda. They asked not to be named because they aren’t authorised to speak on the matter.

“This will be a critical meeting for the NEC,” said Ongama Mtimka, a political science lecturer at the Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University in Port Elizabeth, who says there is probably an even chance of him being removed. “We have the balance of power shifting within the ANC. More and more people have begun to speak out.”

ANC leadership

Even though Zuma withstood a bid to remove him at an NEC meeting in November, criticism of him is rising as he prepares to relinquish the ANC leadership in December. His March 31 decision to fire the respected Pravin Gordhan as finance minister and make 19 other changes to his executive swelled the ranks of his opponents and prompted S&P Global Ratings and Fitch Ratings to downgrade the nation’s sovereign credit rating to junk.

While only Parliament can legally force the president from office, the NEC could instruct Zuma to resign, as it did Thabo Mbeki in 2008, or tell its MPs who occupy 62% of the seats in the national legislature, to remove him. Zuma has said he’ll quit if the party orders him to.

READ: CPI, Zuma rumours push rand under R13/$

The rand gained the most among major currencies on Tuesday and Wednesday after Bloomberg reported the ANC leadership may discuss Zuma’s ouster. Yields on benchmark government bonds due 2026 dropped six basis points to 8.49% on Wednesday in Johannesburg. Foreign investors bought a net R3.65bn of South African bonds on Tuesday, the biggest inflow since April 5.

“My working assumption is that there are some on the NEC that want to discuss this, but more that are happy for Zuma to stay,” Kieran Curtis, a London-based director of investment at Standard Life Investments, which manages about $340bn in assets. “The ANC is divided on the matter, and the division goes to the top.”

Sliding vote

Some ANC leaders have openly expressed concern that if the party doesn’t change its ways, it may lose power in the next general elections in 2019. It suffered its worst-ever electoral performance in an August municipal vote when it lost control of Johannesburg and Pretoria.

In recent weeks, Zuma’s government has suffered a series of stinging rebukes.

READ: ANC leaders to discuss Zuma removal at NEC - Bloomberg

The ANC ordered his administration to reverse the reappointment of Brian Molefe as chief executive of Eskom, who’s been implicated alongside the president in a graft probe. Trade union federation Cosatu, the nation’s biggest labour group, barred Zuma from speaking at its rallies. And a group of 101 ANC veterans and anti-apartheid activists issued a renewed plea to the NEC to hold a conference to discuss calls for the president to step down.

The South African Council of Churches said it collated testimony showing that a powerful elite centred around Zuma has been systematically siphoning off state assets.

Zuma is facing “an acute conflation of forces” from all sides, said Jason Robinson, Africa analyst at Oxford Analytica in the UK. While he says it’s unlikely the NEC will agree to immediately oust Zuma, party divisions have widened since it last met.

Even if Zuma fends off his challengers this weekend, he’ll still face a bid by opposition parties to remove him through a motion of no confidence in Parliament. The Constitutional Court is considering whether to rule that the vote can be held by secret ballot, which would allow ANC MPs to cast their ballots without fear of losing their seats.

Within the party, challenges to Zuma’s authority are likely to continue should he manage to cling to office, according to Mtimka.

“Logic says that an ANC-based solution that results in Zuma being recalled is the best solution for the ANC and the country,” Mtimka said. “But we can’t take it as a given that the party will act.”

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