Under South Africa’s system of proportional representation, the public does not vote directly for the president. Rather it is parliament that votes for the president. Because of the governing African National Congress’s (ANC) huge parliamentary majority, since the end of apartheid, parliament has always selected its party leader as head of state. The ANC will choose its next party leader no later than December 2017. (Incumbent party leader Jacob Zuma has said that he will not run for a third term, as is party tradition.) South Africa’s next national elections will take place in 2019. In theory, Zuma could remain as president of South Africa after he leaves office as party leader. However, precedent is that the president resigns his office when he is no longer party leader.
Within the ANC there is a tradition against early politicking for high office. Candidates are often coy about their political ambitions. Hence, up to now, while there has been much speculation, no ANC figure has publicly announced his candidacy for the presidency. However, on December 16, Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa threw his hat in the ring: “It would be very humbling to get into a key position like that, to lead. I am available to stand.”
Ramaphosa has significant support from a number of trade unions and the South African Communist Party. He is likely to win the support of the business community (he is a millionaire many times). He was a lead ANC negotiator of South Africa’s 1994 transition to non-racial democracy and the creation of the country’s constitution; hence, he is likely to be supported by those who fear that the Zuma government has sought to undermine the constitution. It is by no means certain that a deputy president becomes the president through a natural order of succession. His negatives include a sophisticated lifestyle far removed from the party’s township and rural base, and his association with the company involved in the 2012 massacre of workers at the Marikana platinum mine. (A commission of inquiry exonerated him.) Conventional wisdom is that he is far more popular in business circles in London and New York than he is among ANC voters.
At present, his chief competitor is Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, at present the chairperson of the African Union Commission. She is Jacob Zuma’s ex-wife, and they had four children together. Her support includes Jacob Zuma and his political allies, including the ANC Women’s League, the ANC Youth League, the MK Veterans Association (participants in the armed struggle against apartheid), and the premiers of three provinces. She is a Zulu, South Africa’s largest ethnic group, and a major source of electoral support for the ANC. (Ramaphosa comes from the much smaller Venda ethnic group.) She has held numerous ministerial portfolios, including health and foreign affairs. However, her tenure at the African Union has been lackluster. Her supporters play the feminist card.
There will be other candidates. Frequently mentioned as a possible compromise between Ramaphosa and Dlamini-Zuma is the ANC’s party treasurer, Zweli Mkhize. A Zulu and a former premier of KwaZulu-Natal, he is seen as a reconciler who would promote party unity. Another possible candidate is the speaker of parliament, Baleka Mbete. She is also a former deputy president and has been active in the ANC Women’s League. Whoever emerges as party leader will be the result of an internal ANC party political process that does not rule out a dark horse. Stay tuned.