Jacob Zuma is fighting for his political survival as pressure mounts on the South African president to resign before a key national address this week.
Senior leaders of the ruling African National Congress (ANC) met Zuma over the weekend to ask him to step down. Local media reported that the 75-year-old politician, who is battling corruption allegations, refused.
The party’s national working committee, one of its highest decision-making bodies, will meet on Monday in Johannesburg to consider its next step.
One possibility is that Zuma will be ordered to resign, though this may raise significant constitutional issues. According to ANC rules, all members – even elected officials – fulfil their functions according to the will of the party.
The premature departure of Zuma, whose second five-year term is due to expire next year, will consolidate the power of Cyril Ramaphosa, who was elected leader of the ANC in December.
Supporters of Ramaphosa, seen as the standard bearer of the reformist wing of the party, say it is essential that Zuma is sidelined as early as possible to allow the ANC to regroup before campaigning starts in earnest for elections in 2019.
Adriaan Basson, a senior South African journalist, wrote: “Zuma has played all his cards and is now at open war with Ramaphosa and his supporters.”
Zuma had led the ANC since 2007 and has been South Africa’s president since 2009. His tenure in both posts has been controversial, with a series of corruption scandals undermining the image and legitimacy of the party that led South Africans to freedom in 1994 and has ruled ever since.
The ANC still dominates the political landscape in South Africa but its popularity has been dented by a failure to transform the lives of the country’s poor. The party lost control of several cities in municipal elections in 2016 and may be forced into a coalition after the 2019 vote.
The party’s top decision-making body is split between supporters of Ramaphosa and Zuma. Supporters of the president were gathering outside the ANC’s headquarters on Monday morning.
Paul Mashatile, the ANC treasurer-general, told reporters on Friday the president should step down. “There should be a change of guard. You can’t have two centres of power. The best possible way is if the state president exits,” Mashatile said.
Ace Magashule, the ANC secretary-general and a Zuma loyalist, said the president would still address the opening of parliament in Cape Town on Thursday. The Democratic Alliance, a major opposition party, called for the address to be postponed.
The Economic Freedom Fighters, a second opposition party, has called for a fresh no-confidence motion, which will be heard on 22 February.
The only ANC body with the formal power to order Zuma to resign is its national executive committee (NEC). If there is agreement at the national working committee on Monday, the larger and more senior NEC will then meet to recommend rapid action against the president. This is unlikely before the state of the nation address on Thursday, experts say.
The timing and form of any move will depend on the shifting and unpredictable dynamics of a complex struggle for power within the uppermost ranks of the ANC.
In 2008 Thabo Mbeki stood down as president a year before the end of his term after the ruling party formally requested his resignation over allegations he misused his power. His deputy then took power, until Jacob Zuma led the party to another victory in elections in 2009 and became president.
“Zuma’s days in the office can definitely be counted in weeks, not months,” said Jakkie Cilliers, an analyst with the Institute for Security Studies, a Pretoria-based thinktank.
Ramaphosa has said South Africa is coming out of a “period of uncertainty, a period of darkness, and getting into a new phase”.
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