South Africa’s ANC Braces for Repeat of Leadership Fight

South Africa’s ruling African National Congress is bracing for a divisive leadership fight as President Jacob Zuma prepares to fend off a challenge similar to the one he mounted five years ago to depose Thabo Mbeki.

Zuma’s biggest threat at a December conference is likely to come from his deputy, Kgalema Motlanthe. Party Treasurer- General Mathews Phosa and Human Settlements Minister Tokyo Sexwale also covet the top job, said Susan Booysen, author of “The ANC and the Regeneration of Political Power.” Since the ANC commands almost two-thirds of the national vote, the president of the party and the nation are one and the same.

“The party is extremely volatile,” Daryl Glaser, a politics professor at the University of Witwatersrand, said in a March 28 phone interview from Johannesburg. “The anti-Zuma forces might be able to mobilize the disaffected youth, the branches, and turn the tables on Zuma, like they did on Mbeki.”

Once a political movement united behind Nelson Mandela in fighting the apartheid government, the 100-year-old ANC now presides over a $372-billion economy, with its hands on the levers of power, resources, state jobs and contracts.

While economic growth has averaged 1.5 percent annually for the past three years the government has said it must expand 7 percent a year to meet its goal of creating 5 million new jobs by 2020. Growth in the same period averaged 3.6 percent in both Brazil and Turkey, according to the International Monetary Fund.

There are several anti-Zuma factions within the ANC that accuse him of abusing his position by dispensing patronage to his family and political allies, according to Booysen.

Mining, Oil

Zuma’s nephew, Khulubuse Zuma, has invested in mining and oil, while his son, Duduzane, was part of a group of black investors that was awarded a $1.1 billion stake in steelmaker ArcelorMittal South Africa Ltd. (ACL) before the transaction was scrapped last year. Zuma and his relatives deny using their political clout to clinch business deals.

Two recent ANC decisions have bolstered Zuma’s position. The party expelled one of his biggest critics, ANC Youth League leader Julius Malema, and it decided that nominations for leadership posts will only open two months before the December party congress. No one has declared their candidature.

The youth league, which helped mobilize support for the ouster of Mbeki, threw its weight behind Motlanthe after Zuma refused to support its call for mines, banks and land to be nationalized. The Congress of South African Trade Unions, the country’s largest labor grouping with 2 million members, which also backed Zuma in 2007, has criticized his administration for not doing enough to create jobs and ease poverty.

Unemployment

The unemployment rate has exceeded 23 percent since Zuma, 70, became president in 2009.

Legal trouble also looms. The Bloemfontein-based Supreme Court of Appeal ordered prosecutors last month to release abridged records of an April 2009 decision to drop charges against Zuma that were filed after he was accused of taking bribes from arms dealers.

While Zuma declined to comment beyond saying he “noted” the ruling, the opposition Democratic Alliance said it may force prosecutors to reopen the case against him. The High Court will rule on the matter after the National Prosecuting Authority abandoned its opposition to a judicial review.

Zuma’s main attraction in 2007 was his ability to mobilize anti-Mbeki sentiment, said Booysen.

“He is not the ultimate leader,” she said in an April 4 phone interview from Johannesburg. “He was the only one who had everything to win and nothing to lose in the battle against Mbeki.”

The 2007 conference was the first time since the advent of democracy that the leadership of the ANC went down to a vote, and exposed divisions within the country’s ruling alliance, which includes unions and the South African Communist Party.

Divisions

Motlanthe, 62, a former labor leader, served as president of the country for eight months after Mbeki was removed because Zuma wasn’t eligible for the post until after April 2009 elections.

While Motlanthe appeared alongside Malema at a Youth League rally in the northeastern town of Tzaneen on March 26, he has distanced himself from the campaign to oust Zuma.

“Those who try to use our names to divide the organization will not succeed,” he told reporters in Johannesburg on April 3 at a press conference attended by the top six office holders of the ANC’s National Executive Committee. He has said the government has no immediate plans to take over mines.

Motlanthe acquitted himself well in dealing with the fallout of the global financial crisis, said Peter Attard Montalto, an economist at Nomura Plc in London.

‘Statesman’

“He is thoughtful policy-wise, smart politically and looked like a statesman,” Attard Montalto said in an e-mailed comments on March 30.

Even though some analysts consider Motlanthe to be a better communicator than Zuma, who has been criticized for varying his positions depending on the audience he is addressing, the leader of the party has the advantage.

In his current position, Motlanthe is responsible for coordinating the building of new power plants and rail links and the expansion of the country’s ports and overseeing the government’s anti-AIDS program.

Motlanthe will stand for the post if nominated and has backing in at least four of the nine provinces, the Johannesburg-based Sunday Times reported on March 17, citing unidentified senior aides to the deputy president.

Polarized Campaign

Motlanthe “hasn’t spoken to anybody about leadership positions in the ANC,” his spokesman Thabo Masebe, said in a March 26 interview from Pretoria. “He doesn’t want to get involved in speculation about nomination.”

A polarized election campaign that taints both leading candidates may open the door for Cyril Ramaphosa, one of South Africa’s wealthiest black businessmen, said William Gumede, author of ‘Thabo Mbeki and The Battle For the Soul of The ANC’ in an April 4 interview from Johannesburg.

Johannesburg’s City Press newspaper on April 1 reported that Ramaphosa was being courted by supporters of both Motlanthe and Zuma who want him to serve as a deputy and later rule the country. The newspaper cited nine unidentified people ranging from provincial leaders to businessmen.

Ramaphosa, 59, was the ANC’s chief negotiator in the talks that ended the apartheid system and helped design the constitution following all-race elections in 1994.

He quit mainstream politics in 1996 and went into business after Mbeki defeated him in the race to succeed Mandela. The chairman of Bidvest Group Ltd. (BVT) and MTN Group Ltd. (MTN), Africa’s biggest mobile phone company, he remains a member of the ANC’s national executive committee, and is deputy head of the country’s National Planning Commission.

Integrity

In September the Sunday Times estimated his wealth at 2.22 billion rand ($278 million), excluding property and unlisted assets.

“Because Zuma’s in power, he’s the front runner,” Gumede said. “However somebody who is not in the thick of things, such as Ramaphosa, who has integrity and is not seen as corrupt, may have a very good chance.”

Zuma has strong support in his home province of KwaZulu- Natal and the Eastern Cape, which together account for more than 40 percent of ANC members, and Motlanthe may be reluctant to enter the leadership fray unless he is sure of success, said Glaser.

“Motlanthe has never displayed an enormous hunger for power, but it must be quite difficult for him to resist all these entreaties to go for the presidency,” Glaser said. “If he decides to go for the presidency openly, he risks losing not only the presidency but the deputy presidency.”

To contact the reporter on this story: Mike Cohen in Cape Town at mcohen21@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Andrew J. Barden at barden@bloomberg.net

Bloomberg reserves the right to remove comments but is under no obligation to do so, or to explain individual moderation decisions.

Please enable JavaScript to view the comments powered by Disqus.