from Africa in Transition

Understanding the Race for South Africa's ANC Leadership

South African president and leader of the ANC Jacob Zuma (L) and Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa in South Africa March 18, 2016. Ramaphosa, along with Dlamini-Zuma, are the two front-runners to replace Zuma as party leader. Siphiwe Sibeko/Reuters

November 7, 2017

South African president and leader of the ANC Jacob Zuma (L) and Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa in South Africa March 18, 2016. Ramaphosa, along with Dlamini-Zuma, are the two front-runners to replace Zuma as party leader. Siphiwe Sibeko/Reuters
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South Africa’s President Jacob Zuma, worth over $20 million, is widely regarded as corrupt, a sexual predator, and a facilitator of “state capture” by his cronies, the Gupta brothers. The economy is in the doldrums, and the Rand continues to lose value. Yet, as of now, the candidate likely to succeed him as African National Congress (ANC) party leader is his chosen successor, Nkosanza Dlamini Zuma. Her rival for the position is the powerful Cyril Ramaphosa, the current deputy president, worth an estimated $700 million, and an architect of the country’s transition to non-racial democracy. A brief review of the way both South Africa’s constitutional democracy and the ANC work is needed to explain how someone attached to the publicly toxic Jacob Zuma could be the front-runner to succeed him.

Jacob Zuma is both the leader of the African National Congress (ANC) and the president of South Africa. At an upcoming December convention, the ANC will choose a new party leader. Not until 2019, however, will there actually be national elections, which will ultimately decide the new president. Under South Africa’s constitutional system of proportional representation, voters vote for a party, not a particular candidate. Behind the scenes and out of the public eye, parties rank-order their candidates. So, if a party wins thirty seats, then the first thirty names on the party’s rank-ordered list go into parliament. If a party wins a majority of votes, as the ANC always has since the end of apartheid, the first name on its list (usually party leader but not necessarily so) is elected president by the ANC majority in parliament. 

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Within the ANC, the party leader position takes precedent over the president. Hence, if the president is deposed as party leader, the expectation is that he will resign the presidency. Thabo Mbeki resigned the presidency after being defeated for party leadership in 2007, and the deputy president became acting president until national elections in 2009. This is not a matter of law, but one of party practice. It is conceivable that a defeated or retired party leader might try to retain the presidency. The assumption is that, should he try to do so while not party leader, he would lack the necessary support of a majority in parliament and thus could not function politically.

That being said, if Dlamini-Zuma, his political ally, ex-wife, and mother of four of his twenty-odd children, wins the contest for party leadership, he could very well decline to step down from the presidency, and he would be completely within his rights. At least in theory, she would be able to muster enough support for him to function as president. Importantly, Zuma will face 700-plus indictments for corruption once he leaves the presidency (sitting presidents are apparently immune from prosecution), whether that is in December 2017 or in 2019. South Africa’s judiciary has proven itself independent time and time again. As party leader, Dlamini-Zuma might be able to provide Zuma crucial cover from the judiciary. If he is confident she is able to do so, Jacob Zuma might feel comfortable enough to resign, given the poor state of his health. Suffice to stay that the personal stakes in December are high for the sitting president.

On the other hand, if another candidate not well disposed toward him wins, like Cyril Ramaphosa, then it becomes likely that he will step down because he will not command a majority in parliament. In that case Cyril Ramaphosa as deputy president would then become acting president. Even if Ramaphosa does not win, Dlamini-Zuma could allow Ramaphosa to stay on as deputy president—and, therefore, acting president until the 2019 elections—to keep the party together. 

As the discussion above shows, political parties under South Africa’s system of proportional representation are much stronger than they are in Canada, the United Kingdom, or the United States. If a member of parliament leaves his party, he must resign his seat. Particularly striking for an American observer is the subordination of the state to the party. Within the ANC, the subordination of the presidency to the position of party leader recalls and perhaps reflects the Marxist-Leninist practice of its years in exile and during its armed struggle. 

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