Zuma's Moves Threaten Split in South Africa Ruling Alliance

Updated on
  • President Jacob Zuma fired communist leader from cabinet
  • Ruling ANC will elect new party leader at December conference

South African President Jacob Zuma’s decision to fire communist party leader Blade Nzimande from his cabinet is widening a rift with two of the African National Congress’s closest allies before a key leadership conference in December.

In dismissing Nzimande as higher education minister Tuesday, Zuma, 75, targeted the communist party, which along with the main labor confederation, Cosatu, has said the president must step down because of a series of scandals that has rocked his eight-year-old administration. Both groups also back Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa to become the next ANC leader over Zuma’s preferred candidate, former African Union Commission chairwoman and his ex-wife, Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma.

Jacob Zuma

Photographer: Waldo Swiegers/Bloomberg

“The communist party standing on its own has been a major irritant and he’s trying to send a message that he is not impressed with their public attacks on him and his administration,” said Ivor Sarakinsky, a lecturer at the University of the Witwatersrand’s School of Governance in Johannesburg.

Over the longer term, the rift within the ANC’s 30-year alliance with the communists and organized labor poses a threat to its ability to retain the power it first won in the post-apartheid elections in 1994. Disgruntlement with Zuma’s rule saw the party’s share of the vote touch an all-time low of 54 percent in last year’s municipal elections, costing it control of Pretoria, the capital, and the economic hub of Johannesburg. Several senior party leaders have warned that it’s at risk of losing its absolute majority in 2019.

‘State Capture’

Both the communists and Cosatu have been critical of Zuma’s administration for the almost daily reports of new details on the president’s friendship with members of the Gupta family and their alleged influence over his government, known locally as “state capture.” Zuma and the Guptas deny wrongdoing.

“We have ended up calling for President Jacob Zuma to step down because we can see that there is evidence that indicates that he is the main facilitator of the concept of capture of the state,” Solly Mapaila, the South African Communist Party’s second deputy general secretary, told reporters in Johannesburg.

By removing Nzimande, Zuma is seeking to force a rupture by provoking the communists to quit the alliance, thus weakening support for Ramaphosa and boosting Dlamini-Zuma’s chances, the party said.

“The removal of Dr. Nzimande from the cabinet is part of Zuma’s maneuvers to secure successful election of his ordained successor at the forthcoming ANC December national conference,” it said.

Credit-Rating Downgrade

The rand weakened as much as 1.1 percent against the dollar after the announcement, which also included changes to the energy, state security and home affairs portfolios. It traded 0.3 percent lower at 13.4264 per dollar at 8:21 a.m. Wednesday in Johannesburg.

Cosatu said Zuma’s frequent cabinet reshuffles aren’t creating the certainty needed in the government. Both the communists and the labor group criticized the March dismissal of Pravin Gordhan as finance minister, a move that prompted two ratings companies to downgrade the country’s foreign-debt assessment to junk.

“Cosatu expects cabinet reshuffles to be about strengthening the capacity of government in order to help government to better implement its developmental agenda and deliver on its promises,” the federation said in an emailed statement. “We are not convinced that this reshuffle is informed by that. We call on the ANC to reflect deeply about the state of the economy and the overall performance of its government.”

A split in the ruling alliance would greatly weaken the ANC and increase chances that it will lose its parliamentary majority in 2019, according to Ben Payton, head of Africa research at Verisk Maplecroft, a Bath, England-based risk adviser.

“Nzimande’s sacking severs one of the last remaining ties between the ANC and the SACP,” Payton said by email. “If the SACP’s preferred candidate, Cyril Ramaphosa, fails to win the ANC presidency in December, a formal breakdown of the ANC’s tripartite alliance with the SACP and Cosatu is likely.”

Yet the communists probably won’t split from in the ruling alliance at least until Zuma’s successor is chosen, said Prince Mashele, a political analyst at Pretoria-based Centre for Politics and Research.

“My sense is that the SACP will stick to Ramaphosa and if he doesn’t win come December they might take the decision to leave,” he added. “If Ramaphosa wins, I think they are prepared to talk to him.”

— With assistance by Michael Cohen, and Rene Vollgraaff

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