South Africa’s Teflon president has survived six attempts on his political life. Even if he survives a seventh, the damage to Africa’s most storied liberation movement is done.
JOHANNESBURG — President Jacob Zuma sat with crossed arms under a tent in Bloemfontein, one of South Africa’s three national capitals, waiting for the crowd to settle down and let him speak.
The crowd never did.
For more than an hour, a jeering throng of trade unionists refused to let the president get on stage to make his annual May Day speech on May 1, instead raising their fists and shouting, “Zuma must go!” Leaders of the country’s largest federation of trade unions, COSATU, which has been allied with Zuma’s ruling African National Congress (ANC) since 1990, pleaded with their rank and file to let the rally continue. Eventually, Zuma stood up, smiled and shook a few hands, and then left the grounds in his shiny motorcade.
Now, with 2019 elections looming large, the party must grapple with a previously inconceivable notion: being voted out of power by the country’s black majority.
Perhaps most importantly, the vote will be conducted by secret ballot, instead of the usual open electronic voting system, which will shield ANC parliamentarians from party retribution if they turn on their leader. The opposition had been campaigning hard for a secret ballot, and in a surprise decision Monday, National Assembly Speaker Baleka Mbete announced the procedural change.
“The disrespect for the current ANC as it has become is really pretty widespread,” said Susan Booysen, a politics professor at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg. “The ANC is really in an existential crisis.”
Electoral numbers tell a similar story. The ANC’s support has dropped from nearly 70 percent in 2004 national polls to just over 62 percent in 2014. In the last local elections, in August 2016, the party had its worst-ever showing, losing control of the key cities of Johannesburg and Tshwane and the longtime ANC stronghold of Nelson Mandela Bay. The rejoinder to the party’s dwindling popularity in cities has been that its rural support base is stronger, but when two-thirds of South Africans live in cities, the overall trend lines don’t bode well for the party.
Much of the electoral damage has been done by Zuma himself. “His image crisis has caused collateral damage to the image of the party,” Matshiqi said. “The factions that support him have become a metaphor for everything venal and corrupt in the state.”
Zuma is due to step down as party leader in December, although he could stay on as head of state until 2019. But the ANC is likely to feel the effects of his embattled tenure for many years after that. In the last few months, there have been rumblings of a potential political earthquake: COSATU and the South African Communist Party (SACP), both of which have backed the ANC for the last 27 years, have signaled that their allegiance to the party of Nelson Mandela is not unconditional. Both have called on Zuma to step down, and the SACP recently said it will contest future elections on its own, instead of running candidates under the ANC banner as it has done since 1994. COSATU plans to formally consult its members in order to decide whether or not the alliance should continue.
“Do we keep the alliance, or do we accept that it has failed?” said Sizwe Pamla, COSATU’s national spokesman. “That will be up to the workers.”
With 1.7 million members, most of whom support the ANC, the loss of COSATU’s support is no small matter in a country where 26.3 million people were registered to vote in 2016. Zuma has been “reckless,” Pamla said. “His family has been looting, his friends have been looting, and in the process he has weakened the state, divided the ANC, divided the alliance. We continue to deal with the mess, and it will take a long time to clean up.”
The ANC’s official reaction to dissension within its ranks has only left it looking more divided. In recent weeks, party leaders have been slugging it out in the local press with ANC parliamentarians who are speaking out against Zuma. On Mandela’s birthday on July 18, ANC parliamentarian Makhosi Khoza from KwaZulu-Natal, Zuma’s home area, lashed out at Zuma and the party, calling on the president to step aside and saying she was trying to “rescue the little that is left, if any, in my organization’s moral conscience.” The KwaZulu-Natal chapter of the ANC’s women’s league noted with “disgust” Khoza’s “unscrupulous behavior.”