Zuma Blunders Hobble South Africa's Ruling ANC Ahead of Key Vote

Germany's Chancellor Angela Merkel Meets South Africa's President Jacob Zuma

Jacob Zuma.

Photographer: Krisztian Bocsi/Bloomberg
  • Party support may plunge as much as 10%: NKC's Van Staden
  • Most citizens believe president ignores courts, survey shows

South Africa’s ruling African National Congress faces an unexpected hindrance as it prepares for this year’s local elections: President Jacob Zuma.

Zuma’s six-year tenure has been marred by corruption scandals, controversial appointments and policy missteps that critics say have stifled growth and investment. Last month, the former intelligence operative made his biggest blunder yet when he named little-known lawmaker David van Rooyen as his finance minister, sending the rand and stock and bond markets into a tailspin before he rescinded the decision four days later. The currency still hasn’t recovered.

Dissent over Zuma’s stewardship of Africa’s most industrialized economy may see the ANC’s support plummet by as much as 10 percentage points in the local government vote that’s due between May and August, according to Gary van Staden, a political analyst at NKC African Economics. The party, which marks its 104th anniversary on Friday, has won more than 60 percent of the vote in every election since coming to power under Nelson Mandela more than two decades ago after the end of white-minority rule.

Leadership Crisis

“The ANC is facing a crisis of leadership,” Van Staden said by phone from Paarl, near Cape Town. “Even its own strategists expect it to be hammered. They are going to lose control over a number of local authorities.”

ANC spokesman Zizi Kodwa declined to comment on whether the party expects to lose support as a result of Zuma’s actions.

Public distrust in the president stands at a record of 66 percent, up from 37 percent in 2011, and a majority of South Africans believes he routinely ignores parliament and the courts, an Afrobarometer poll of 2,400 people released in November showed. The survey didn’t gauge whether that dissatisfaction will dim the appeal of the ANC, Africa’s oldest political movement.

As it prepares to outline its priorities for the year at an anniversary rally in the northwest town of Rustenburg on Saturday, the ANC is standing by Zuma for now.

The party praised him for demonstrating “bold leadership” when he appointed Pravin Gordhan, who served as finance minister between 2009 and 2014, to replace Van Rooyen following a four-day market rout that drove the rand to a record low and caused the biggest ever jump in bond yields.

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“The ability of the leadership to review their positions in the face of legitimate concerns of our people are the hallmarks of a listening, responsive and accountable organization,” the ANC said by e-mail.

Zuma, 73, won control of the ANC from Thabo Mbeki in December 2007 and was appointed president in May 2009, just weeks after prosecutors dropped charges against him of taking bribes from arms dealers. He won a second five-year term as party leader in 2012, cementing control by appointing allies to key posts. He’s due to step down as president in 2019.

Since taking office, Zuma has been accused of squandering taxpayers’ money on a 215-million rand ($13.3 million) upgrade of his private home and allowing friends to use an air force base to transport guests to a wedding. He denies any wrongdoing.

Zuma’s presiding over an economy that’s growing at its slowest pace since 2009, with its debt threatened by a credit downgrade to junk and an unemployment rate of 25.5 percent.

“How the ANC performs in the local government elections will very much determine the influence and the staying power of President Jacob Zuma,” said Somadoda Fikeni, a political analyst at the Pretoria-based University of South Africa. “Should it not do well, certainly that will weaken him.”

Succession Battle

The latest controversies have come as the ANC faces the growing appeal of opposition parties, violent community protests over a lack of services, and the start of a potentially bruising fight to succeed Zuma as ANC leader in 2017 between his ex-wife, Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, and Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa.

The ANC’s main challenger in the municipal vote is the Democratic Alliance, which won 22 percent of the vote in 2014, controls Cape Town, the second-largest city and aims to wrest control of the Tshwane metropolitan area, which includes the capital, Pretoria, Johannesburg, Pretoria and Port Elizabeth from the ANC.

The 287 municipalities oversee parks, libraries, sanitation and distribution of electricity and water.

While the ANC will probably retain control of Johannesburg, it’s vulnerable in other urban areas and may be forced into coalitions, according to Anthony Butler, a politics professor at the University of Cape Town. Its reputation has been badly damaged, Fikeni said.

“I doubt the ANC would rejuvenate itself under Zuma’s leadership,” he said. “It doesn’t look like he has a plan or a strategy to deal with the challenges which are faced by the country or by the ANC. The issue of the finance minister seems to have been a tipping point.”

(In a previous version of this story, the spelling of Rustenburg was corrected.)

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