from Africa in Transition

Update on South Africa’s Leadership Fight

September 13, 2017

ANC Treasurer General Zweli Mkhize (R) and Speaker of Parliament Baleka Mbete during the African National Congress 5th National Policy Conference in South Africa, June 30, 2017. Mkhize hopes to be the compromise candidate in the ANC leadership race. Siphiwe Sibeko/Reuters
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Politics and Government

South Africa’s ruling African National Congress (ANC) chooses a new party leader in December. Jacob Zuma, the discredited incumbent, is no longer regarded as a credible option. Instead of running, he is supporting the candidacy of his former wife, Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, herself many times a cabinet minister and most recently the chairwoman of the African Union Commission. Her leading rival is Cyril Ramaphosa, currently the deputy president and seen as a reformer. Up to now a two-horse race, Zweli Mkhize, ANC treasurer general, has now said publicly that he would accept the nomination for party leader from party branches. Meanwhile, President Zuma has announced that Dlamini-Zuma will enter parliament. (Under South Africa’s proportional system of representation if there is party-held seat that becomes vacant, the party leader can fill it—without a by-election.) Rumors are circulating on social media that Zuma is also considering a cabinet reshuffle that would provide a place for Dlamini-Zuma. Both could boost her chances in the party leadership race.

There are political downsides to Dlamini-Zuma and Ramaphosa. The former has proved to be an aloof, ineffective campaigner that belies her ‘populist’ message, and she is hurt by her close ties to the discredited Jacob Zuma. Ramaphosa is associated in the public mind with the police killing of strikers at the Marikana Platinum Mine in 2012. Further, he is the victim of a smear campaign involving alleged sexual indiscretions, though the claims appear to be baseless, and he has also become one of the richest blacks in South Africa, potentially alienating working-class voters. Hence Mkhize is an attractive alternative. He is associated with the “reformist” wing of the party, but has not cut his ties to Zuma. He has few political enemies with the ANC.

Though Zuma may be out as party leader in December, he remains president until 2019, unless he resigns. That is what Thabo Mbeki did when he was defeated for the party leadership in 2008. Within the ANC, the assumption has been that the party leader and the president are the same person and that a defeated party leader resigns the presidency. Hence, the Mbeki resignation. But Zuma’s resignation is not required by law. Nevertheless, if Dlamini-Zuma wins in December, the chances are good that Zuma will resign the presidency, clearing the way for her presidential candidacy on the ANC ticket in 2019. But if Ramaphosa or Mkhize win, Zuma might try to hang on to the presidency until his term formally expires.

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