How world sees SA: Retaining Zuma shows ANC leaders put party above nation

South Africa has a proven record of defying naysayers and successfully negotiating a path through the turbulent periods that have tested its young democracy.

The country’s president, Jacob Zuma, has likewise displayed a Teflon-like penchant for shrugging off one scandal after another as he made it to, and retained, the nation’s highest office.

South Africa's President and ANC president Jacob Zuma attends the party's three-day National Executive Committee (NEC) meeting in Pretoria, in this March 18, 2016 file photo. REUTERS/Siphiwe Sibeko
File photo: South Africa’s President and ANC president Jacob Zuma attends the party’s three-day National Executive Committee meeting in Pretoria, in March. REUTERS/Siphiwe Sibeko

But the presidency and the ruling African National Congress are now grappling with the deepest political and economic crisis in the democratic era, with Mr Zuma’s ability to retain his grip on power looking ever more tenuous.

The president survived a historic impeachment vote in parliament this week thanks to the ANC, which used its majority to quash an opposition motion. But although Mr Zuma and the party won that battle, in the aftermath of the four-hour mauling that they endured during the parliamentary debate – broadcast live across the nation – the clamour for the former liberation movement to remove its leader has intensified.

The impeachment motion was called after the Constitutional Court ruled that the president had violated the constitution over his refusal to accept findings by the state’s public protector that he repay taxpayers’ money spent on his private Nkandla residence.

The court’s scathing judgment added to charges by Mr Zuma’s critics who accuse him of dragging Africa’s most industrialised nation down a dangerous path and say he is not fit to hold office.

It is not just the opposition crying foul. This week, some in the ANC came out against the president. A branch of the party as well as respected ANC veterans, including Trevor Manuel, who was South Africa’s longest-serving finance minister, and Cheryl Carolus, a former deputy secretary-general of the ANC, called on Mr Zuma to resign. Ahmed Kathrada, who spent years in the notorious Robben Island prison alongside his close friend, the late Nelson Mandela, made a similar plea.

Civil society groups and church leaders have joined the growing chorus against the president, calling for “social mobilisation.” Disparate opposition parties, which at Tuesday’s impeachment vote displayed a rare sense of unity, say they will continue to pursue legal avenues to oust Mr Zuma.

Ultimately the president’s survival will probably rest with his party – or, at least, its national executive committee (NEC).

So far, the ANC’s top brass has publicly backed Mr Zuma, even as the pressure has mounted since he shocked South Africans and markets by replacing his respected finance minister with an unknown backbencher in December.

The party’s senior ranks rallied around him again after his deputy finance minister last month revealed he was offered the Treasury’s top post by the influential Gupta family, which is close to the president. They also supported him after the Constitutional Court’s ruling.

But the ANC is finding itself backed into a corner, with crucial local elections looming in August. Its already tattered credibility is dented each time that its leaders seek to defend what, for many South Africans, is indefensible. And there are many within the party who are appalled by what is happening.

On the other hand, the ANC, which has dominated politics since the first democratic vote in 1994, would not want to be seen to be forced to act by the opposition. There will also be some reluctance for the party to suffer the ignominy of recalling two presidents in less than a decade – Thabo Mbeki was forced from office in 2008 after losing a power struggle with Mr Zuma.

Finally, many members of the NEC owe their positions, and the wealth and power they bring, to the president.

Mr Zuma, meanwhile, is a renowned political fighter and astute operator of ANC structures who rarely takes a backwards step.

The tragedy for South Africa is that as the political malaise deepens, it overshadows all else at a time when the economy is in tatters, with the country’s credit rating at risk of being downgraded to junk status.

Cracks may be appearing within the ANC, but the key question many are asking is whether the leadership will put its own interests before those of South Africa.

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2016

(c) 2016 The Financial Times Ltd.