from Africa in Transition

Dlamini-Zuma at Top of the ANC Table

May 18, 2017

Former African Union chairperson Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma reacts before addressing a lecture to members of the African National Congress Youth League in Durban, South Africa, April 20, 2017. Reuters/Rogan Ward
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South Africa

Elections and Voting

Sub-Saharan Africa


On May 14, South African president and African National Congress (ANC) party leader Jacob Zuma endorsed his ex-wife, Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, for party leadership. The ANC party elections will be held in December. Currently, opposition to Zuma within the ANC is coalescing around Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa, a millionaire businessman, and one of the leaders of the transition from apartheid to non-racial democracy.

Zuma’s term as president of South Africa runs until 2019. However, under South Africa’s system of proportional representation, the ANC can “recall” him from the presidency should it choose to do so. If Dlamini-Zuma wins the party leadership, his recall is unlikely; should Ramaphosa win, the chances would increase.

Dlamini-Zuma is a former minister of health, of foreign affairs, and she was the first female chairperson of the Africa Union Commission. However, many outside observers see her achievements in office as mediocre. If she wins in December, she will be the first female head of the party, and she will be well placed to become the national president in 2019.

Critics hostile to Zuma maintain that his support for his ex-wife is driven by desire to preserve his wealth for their children and to avoid prosecution for corruption once he is out of office. Meanwhile, over the weekend that Zuma announced his support for his ex-wife, there were widespread demonstrations against him and against the Gupta family, who are widely seen as beneficiaries of Zuma’s position. The Guptas are regularly accused of “state capture,” using their influence over Zuma to win lucrative government contracts.

Zuma appears to retain control of the ANC party machinery, and, for that reason, Dlamini-Zuma must be seen as the favorite in the December race. Ramaphosa has the support of the ANC’s major partners: the Congress of South African Trade Unions (his background is in the trade union movement), the South African Communist Party, and the business community. (That the communists and big business support the same horse is indicative of the unconventional nature of South African politics.) Ramaphosa’s party strength is to be found in the urban areas, especially Johannesburg; Zuma’s core support is among the rural areas. However, continued division at the top of the ANC provides greater space for a third, “compromise,” candidate to contest in December, ANC Party Treasurer Zweli Mkize is frequently mentioned. 

Popular anger against Zuma and the ANC party machine appears to be genuine and growing. A Dlamini-Zuma victory in December could be pyrrhic if the voters exact revenge in 2019 and vote for the opposition in the national elections. However, it is unclear which political grouping would most benefit: the largest opposition party, the Democratic Alliance, is widely perceived as a “white” political party; and, the third largest party, the Economic Freedom Fighters, is radical in rhetoric, and has a leader, Julius Malema, who loathes the Zuma’s. It is also possible that there will be a significant secession movement from the ANC that might contest the 2019 elections on its own, opening the door to coalition politics.

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