Zuma Weathers Calls to Quit After Constitutional Breach

  • Parliament to debate opposition motion for impeachment Tuesday
  • ANC veterans want Zuma to step down in nation's interest

South African President Jacob Zuma will probably survive the mounting pressure to resign over the ruling by the nation’s highest court that he violated the constitution -- for the time being.

QuickTake South Africa’s One Party Crisis

While some veterans of the ruling African National Congress and religious leaders have urged Zuma to step down, the ANC’s National Executive Committee is unlikely to risk further dividing the party by removing him now. It faces a major test to its hold on key cities such as Pretoria and Johannesburg in local elections due by August. The party’s 62 percent majority in parliament should defeat a scheduled opposition motion for his impeachment on Tuesday.

“I think Zuma’s exit will happen, but on the ANC’s terms after the defeat of the impeachment vote and local government elections,” Peter Attard Montalto, an economist at Nomura Plc in London, said by phone. “The ANC will want to show it’s acting from a position of strength, rather than bowing to the opposition.”

Criticism of Zuma, 73, has intensified since his December decision to replace his respected finance minister, Nhlanhla Nene, with a little-known lawmaker sparked a selloff of the rand and the nation’s bonds. South Africa’s economy is set to grow at its slowest pace since the 2009 recession and faces a possible credit-rating downgrade. Standard & Poor’s has a negative outlook on its BBB- rating, one level above junk. Moody’s Investors Service rates South Africa’s debt one level higher.

Those who have publicly called on Zuma to go include: veteran ANC member Ahmed Kathrada who was tried, convicted and jailed with former President Nelson Mandela for fighting white-minority rule; Njongonkulu Ndungane, the former Anglican archbishop of Cape Town; and Mathews Phosa, the ANC’s former treasurer. An online petition calling for Zuma’s ouster has attracted more than 183,000 signatures.

“The veterans have sway within the ANC,” said Somadoda Fikeni, a politics professor at the University of South Africa in Pretoria, the capital. “It’s an indictment against the current ANC leadership, which says despite any logical argument ‘we are going ahead defending our leader.”’

Taxpayer Money

The Constitutional Court ruled on March 31 that Zuma “failed to uphold, defend and respect the constitution” because he didn’t abide by graft ombudsman Thuli Madonsela’s directive to repay some of the 215.9 million rand ($14.7 million) spent on a swimming pool and animal enclosures at his home.

“Although the ruling emboldens Zuma’s detractors inside and outside the ANC, efforts to topple the president still face much greater obstacles than similar struggles in Brazil,” risk advisers Teneo Intelligence said by e-mail.

Brazil’s Congress started impeachment proceedings against President Dilma Rousseff, arguing that she broke the law by allegedly tapping state bank coffers to mask budget deficits. While Rousseff has denied any wrongdoing, a March 29 decision by the nation’s largest party to leave her ruling coalition has raised the odds of her losing the vote.

Zuma Apology

In a televised address on April 1, Zuma apologized for the frustration the scandal over his failure to repay taxpayers’ money spent on his private home had caused, but said he never intentionally did anything illegal.

The rand traded at its strongest level in almost four months when the presidency said Zuma would hold a televised address, only to surrender most of its gains when he indicated his intention to remain in office. The currency strengthened 0.3 percent against the dollar to 14.6573 as of 3 p.m. on Monday in Johannesburg.

Zuma’s speech prompted the nation’s biggest newspaper, the Sunday Times, to call for his resignation three years before his second term is due to end.

“Zuma has never taken any responsibility,” the Johannesburg-based newspaper said in an editorial. “He has never shown leadership. It has become his trademark to blame others for his blunders. Mr. President, it is time to go.”

Party Support

While ANC Secretary-General Gwede Mantashe said the party’s other top five leaders accepted Zuma’s apology and saw no reason to remove him, the Johannesburg-based Rapport newspaper cited an unidentified source as saying they’d agreed the president would quit after the municipal elections. ANC spokesman Zizi Kodwa didn’t immediately respond to a phone call and text message seeking comment.

The ANC’s former head of intelligence, Zuma spent a decade in prison for fighting apartheid. He won control of the ANC from Thabo Mbeki in December 2007 and was sworn in as president in May 2009, just weeks after prosecutors dropped charges against him of taking bribes from arms dealers.

Any ANC move to remove Zuma would have to contend with the residual support he still enjoys in the party. More than 70 percent of the National Executive Committee’s members elected at the ANC’s last national congress in 2012 were part of a bloc that backed him. Many of them were directly appointed to government posts by the president. The NEC is due to discuss the court ruling at a meeting in Cape Town on Monday.

Yet beyond the Constitutional Court ruling, Zuma’s position has been further undermined by allegations by senior ANC officials that a wealthy Indian family who are friends with the president offered them cabinet posts in exchange for business concessions. The ANC leadership is currently investigating those accusations, which the Gupta family denies.

“I know that if I were in the president’s shoes, I would step down with immediate effect,” ANC veteran Kathrada said in an open letter to Zuma. “I believe that is what would help the country to find its way out of a path that it never imagined it would be on.”

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