Bid to Topple Zuma Leaves South African Opposition in Catch 22

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  • President is opposition asset, politics professor Glaser says
  • Opposition DA party says ANC’s problems are bigger than Zuma

Gordhan Says Conscience Important in Anti-Zuma Vote

South African opposition parties trying to get Jacob Zuma to resign are in a conundrum: if they bring down an unpopular president they may lose their best chance to win the next election.

“I suspect opposition leaders are eternally torn on the subject,” said Daryl Glaser, a political science professor at the University of Witwatersrand in Johannesburg. “A lot of them may genuinely want Zuma to go and they may hope that his going spawns a kind of chaos and division in the ruling party that they could benefit from. It is also undeniable that Zuma is something of an electoral asset to opposition parties.”

Jacob Zuma


Since he took power in May 2009, Zuma, 75, has been dogged by scandal, and is on his fourth finance minister in less than two years, with S&P Global Ratings and Fitch Ratings Ltd. cutting South Africa’s credit rating to junk. The ruling African National Congress suffered its worst-ever electoral performance since the end of apartheid in a municipal vote in August that saw it lose control of Pretoria, the capital, and Johannesburg, the economic hub.

Tens of thousands of people have joined street demonstrations since Zuma fired Pravin Gordhan as finance minister in March. Opposition parties have joined church and civil rights groups to push for Zuma’s ouster. Several top ANC leaders have said the party risks losing power in 2019 elections if he’s allowed to complete his second five-year term.

Labor Opposition

Even the labor unions that helped him win control of the ANC have turned on him. Planned speeches by Zuma and others were canceled on Monday when members of the main labor federation that backs the ANC, the Congress of South African Trade Unions, booed him at May Day celebrations in the central city of Bloemfontein. The South African Communist Party, which like Cosatu are in an alliance with the ANC, have joined calls from ANC veterans, church and civil-rights groups for Zuma to resign or be fired.

“Protests and booing is part of the culture of democracy, unfortunately people misunderstand and misread it,” Zuma told reporters Wednesday at the World Economic Forum on Africa in Durban. “In democracies, people engage heads of state, people criticize heads of state, they call for their removal etc because they are expressing themselves freely.”

May Day rally in Bloemfontein.

Photographer: Khothatso Mokone/AP Photo

Zuma has indicated that he favors Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, his ex-wife, mother of four of his children and former head of the African Union Commission, to succeed him as ANC leader when he steps down in December. The other frontrunner for the post is Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa, who’s criticized Zuma’s decision to fire Gordhan and spoken out against corruption.

“From our own messaging point of view, Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma would probably be seen as a continuation of more of the same,” said Mmusi Maimane, the leader of the main opposition Democratic Alliance. While Ramaphosa may be seen by some as a “new broom who sweeps clean” and that the ANC is redeemable, “in truth, the system is broken,” he said.

The president has said he won’t voluntarily relinquish office early and accused his critics of racism and trying to frustrate his plans to bring about “radical economic transformation” to give the country’s black majority a bigger stake in the economy. The ANC has backed Zuma so far, saying the country’s woes can’t be pinned on him alone.

Read more on Zuma’s possible early exit

Zuma is also facing a motion no confidence in Parliament where the ANC holds a 62 percent majority. The Constitutional Court is currently considering whether to decide if there should be a secret ballot, and if it rules that there should be, disgruntled ANC lawmakers who’ve previously helped quash several previous no-confidence motions could side with the opposition without risking losing their jobs.

“It seems the opposition parties are trying to have it both ways,” Cherrel Africa, a political science professor at the University of the Western Cape in Cape Town, said by phone. “If the motion of no confidence works, then they can say they got rid of Zuma. If it doesn’t then they can say the ANC is protecting Zuma.”

Zwelethu Jolobe, a political science lecturer at the University of Cape Town, said most ANC lawmakers who do want Zuma to go early will wait until after the December leadership vote to try and oust him. And even if the vote to get rid of Zuma does succeed, that wouldn’t necessarily signal an end to the country’s leadership malaise, he said.

“The opposition parties have raised some substantive issues, but they are still heavily focused on getting rid of Zuma,” Jolobe said. “Should this happen, then who will succeed him? The ANC has no clear successor to Zuma. No one knows what the consequences of such a motion would be.”

— With assistance by Arabile Gumede

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