How Long Can President Jacob Zuma Remain at the Top in South Africa?

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South African President Jacob Zuma listens at a press conference with President Robert Mugabe in Harare, Zimbabwe, November 3. Philimon Bulawayo/Reuters

It was a familiar scene. On November 10, South African opposition leader Mmusi Maimane stood before a rowdy Parliament in Cape Town and argued that President Jacob Zuma should leave office. For the third time this year, Maimane appealed to members of the African National Congress, the ruling party, to support a vote against their leader. “I know that there are men and women in the ANC benches who want to do the right thing today,” Maimane, head of the Democratic Alliance (DA), said over shouts from the chamber. “Will your conscience allow you to inflict another three years of Mr. Zuma on our country?”

As expected, Zuma easily survived the motion ; the ANC has a clear majority in Parliament, and though many party veterans have called for him to step down, ANC lawmakers supported their leader in the vote. “The motions by the DA have become ritualistic practices founded on spurious allegations and narrow political motives,” the office of the ANC’s chief whip, Jackson Mthembu, said in a statement issued before the vote. “Parliament and the nation are therefore dragged into the opposition’s petty games.”

The chaotic debate revealed the bitter state of South African politics. It has been more than 20 years since Nelson Mandela’s party helped end apartheid and formed the South African government’s first multiracial parliamentary elections with the hope of unifying the country. But today, the ANC is still struggling to fulfill many of the promises of a free South Africa, such as freedom from poverty, universal access to education and social equality. Though it is still firmly in power, a string of corruption scandals dogging the Zuma administration has chipped away at its support.

Critics, even inside the party, have called for a change in leadership to get the country back on track. It is hard to see a way forward from the current political mess, especially after the government’s anti-corruption watchdog released a report on November 2 ordering an inquiry into corruption allegations against the president and others. Eight days later, members of the opposing parties hurled insults at each other during the debate over Zuma’s fitness to remain in office. One ANC minister even accused the DA, a historically white party, of using a “black face” to further its political interests, a clear reference to Maimane.

It is safe to say this is not the legacy Mandela was hoping to leave. In November, the Nelson Mandela Foundation said in a statement that under Zuma’s leadership it is painful to “bear witness to the wheels coming off the vehicle of our state. ”

Many see Zuma’s political survival as a depressing symptom of the failed promise of the post-apartheid ANC government. In December 2015, the currency tanked after Zuma replaced his finance minister twice in a few days, widely seen as a clumsy attempt to exert control over the National Treasury. In March, the country’s highest court ruled that Zuma failed to uphold the constitution by refusing to repay some of the $23 million in public funds spent on upgrades to his private estate, including a swimming pool. He has since apologized and, abiding by a court order, paid back the money. But, in April, another court ruled that he should face nearly 800 charges of corruption that had previously been dropped, a ruling that Zuma has appealed.

Then, in local elections in August, the ANC suffered its worst-ever electoral setback; it lost its majority in three of the country’s biggest cities and won less than 60 percent of the national vote for the first time since coming to power in 1994—a performance many blamed on the president.

The pressure on Zuma intensified in the first week of November, when thousands of protesters took to the streets in the capital, Pretoria, to call for his resignation, after he asked a court to block the release of the watchdog’s report on fresh corruption allegations against him. Zuma withdrew the request, and the report was released, but the mood was ugly enough that Gwede Mantashe, the ANC’s secretary general, suggested to local media that—although the ANC would not recall Zuma—the demands for him to step down were a personal appeal to the president’s “conscience.” On November 15, after losing his attempt to pass a motion of no confidence, Maimane submitted an affidavit to police requesting they investigate “possible criminal offences” committed by Zuma and others mentioned in the report.

For many South Africans, the near-constant political turmoil has compounded a deeper sense that their country is adrift. Malaise over the stagnant economy and a government that seems to run on enriching a small elite has overtaken the optimism, broadly felt during Mandela’s presidency, about building an equitable society for black and white South Africans. Since Zuma came to power in 2009, allegations of cronyism have led to a decline in his popularity; according to a March poll from research company Ipsos, nearly two-thirds of those polled think the country is going in the wrong direction. Today, more than a quarter of the population is unemployed. Inequality continues to be a drag on the economy and a stain on society, with the black majority earning far less income on average and suffering from much higher rates of poverty than the white minority.

If the ANC can’t reassure voters, its previously unassailable ability to hold on to power is at risk in the next national elections, scheduled to be held in 2019. Mantashe and other ANC leaders promised greater introspection after its historic loss in the local elections, but conflicts within the party over Zuma have become starker. In October, 101 party veterans penned an open letter airing their concerns over the ANC’s direction.

Those seeking Zuma’s removal will face resistance from members of the ANC leadership who have a vested interest in keeping Zuma in office, says Mcebisi Ndletyana, an associate professor of politics at the University of Johannesburg. He says those party members are entangled in the same patronage networks that Zuma has been accused of perpetuating. “They cannot act against him because they would also be vulnerable,” Ndletyana says. “Once you remove the head, the network becomes exposed.”

For now, Zuma probably has the numbers he needs to survive, at least in the short term. The ANC members pushing behind the scenes for a leadership change need to wait until they have a comfortable majority within the party to make their move, says Lawson Naidoo, a constitutional expert and founding partner at the Paternoster Group, a risk consultancy. “They’re not going to play that hand until it’s safe to do so.”

The other problem for would-be challengers within the party is that the ANC also has yet to settle on a successor. Zuma is now in his second term, and the law forbids him from serving a third, so the party will need a new leader in 2019. Among the current front-runners are Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa and Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, chairperson of the African Union Commission (who is Zuma’s ex-wife).

Zuma’s critics inside the party say the nation can’t wait two years. The longer Zuma is the face of the ANC, the more its image suffers. “There is not a day that goes by without a bad Zuma story,” says Susan Booysen, a professor at Wits University in Johannesburg. “It’s doing huge damage to the ANC.”

Zuma is not immune to the mounting pressure. At a recent ANC event in KwaZulu-Natal province, a traditional stronghold for him, the president vented his anger at fellow party members for their public criticism and said he wasn’t scared of going back to prison—a fate suggested by one opposition leader—after having served 10 years at the infamous Robben Island during apartheid. “He’s very aware of what’s happening,” says Naidoo. “Is he necessarily going to act on it? He’s a renowned fighter. But those who are lining up behind him are reducing in number.”