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Feb 12, 2018 | 22:21 GMT

5 mins read

South Africa Moves Beyond Zuma

The fortunes of South African President Jacob Zuma, left, have looked bleak since the end of 2017, when the ANC elected Zuma's rival, Cyril Ramaphosa, right, as its new party president.
(GIANLUIGI GUERCIA/AFP/Getty Images)
Highlights
  • The new president of South Africa's ruling party, Cyril Ramaphosa, is set on ousting South African President Jacob Zuma.
  • Zuma's eventual removal will benefit the African National Congress in upcoming 2019 general elections, as it will strip the opposition of the ability to use the president's many corruption scandals as political fodder.
  • Ramaphosa wants to steer the party away from its recent history of corruption and mismanagement, but pulling it out of its long-term decline will be a challenge.

The Coming Zexit?

The long and winding road of South African President Jacob Zuma's political career is finally reaching its end. On Feb. 12, members of the ruling African National Congress' (ANC) National Executive Council met to plan the end of Zuma's presidency. There are conflicting reports from sources within the ANC about whether Zuma has agreed to resign: some in the party assert that he is on board, while others say that Zuma has refused but that the ANC intends to override him with a vote of no confidence. Zuma's spokesman has labeled reports of the president's willing resignation "fake news." But regardless of whether he goes voluntarily, Zuma will almost certainly be stepping off the political stage soon.

The South African president's fortunes have looked bleak since the end of 2017, when the ANC elected Zuma's rival, Cyril Ramaphosa, as its new party president. In South Africa, dominated as it is by the ruling party, the ANC president is even more powerful than the country's president. So when Ramaphosa beat out Zuma's former wife — and close political ally — Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma for the position by attacking the excesses of the Zuma era, the writing on the wall became increasingly clear.

Forecast Update

Stratfor has noted for years that South African President Jacob Zuma would likely be forced to resign if a representative from a rival faction within his African National Congress won the party presidency. Most recently, Stratfor's 2018 Annual Forecast said that Cyril Ramaphosa's election as party president "could make for a bumpier transition as the next election draws near, should the new party leader decide to push for Zuma's dismissal from the presidency." This has certainly played out, as Ramaphosa has taken a hard stance against allowing Zuma to remain South Africa's head of state.

At the time of his victory, Ramaphosa did not have a strong enough hand to push for Zuma's immediate ouster. But in recent weeks he has built up significant support from Zuma's allies. The president's termination is thus a very likely possibility and a critical first step for Ramaphosa as the new ANC president and de facto symbol of the party's future. He will soon be the ANC's candidate in South Africa's fast-approaching 2019 elections, and the strength of his vision for the party will shape the popular perception of his ability to lead the country at large. If Ramaphosa can revamp the ANC's reputation, which has been tainted by years of corruption and mismanagement at the hands of Zuma, he'll be well on his way to securing the goodwill of millions of South Africans.

An ANC Renaissance, Maybe

Ramaphosa's grand plans for an ANC renaissance have met a major roadblock in Zuma's continued hold on the presidency, which explains why the new party leader has made it a priority to resolve the issue. Opposition parties, including the center-right Democratic Alliance and the far-left Economic Freedom Fighters, have been eager to publicly target the president for a number of reasons, including his willingness to use South Africa's intelligence services against perceived enemies and his association with political corruption.

Indeed, fears that he would be prosecuted for illegal acts that occurred during his time in office likely contributed to Zuma's longtime refusal to give up power. He is right to be worried; 783 counts of corruption in connection to 18 charges were reinstated against him in 2017, and he is also facing more recent allegations of corrupt dealings with the wealthy businessmen known as the Gupta brothers. Zuma will almost certainly ask for some form of amnesty in exchange for stepping down, but Ramaphosa is unlikely to compromise his anti-corruption push simply for the sake of political expediency. (He also lacks the power to make such concessions.) Winning over ANC elites may result in a slightly longer road to the national presidency, but for Ramaphosa, the destination is clear nonetheless.

If Zuma willingly steps down, Ramaphosa will immediately become the South African president. But even if if Zuma decides to resist a recall, the ANC will almost certainly take the matter to parliament and secure a vote of no confidence to oust him. In that case, the speaker of the South African National Assembly would assume the presidency for 30 days before the body elects someone new — almost guaranteed to be Ramaphosa — to the position. Either possibility gives Ramaphosa a strong hand to pursue his anti-corruption agenda and lay out other new policies in the upcoming State of the Nation Address, which has been postponed indefinitely while the Zuma matter is resolved.

Once Ramaphosa becomes president, the dynamics of the 2019 election will shift, as ANC's opposition parties will no longer be able to rely on firing political potshots at Zuma. Instead, they'll have to grapple with the new face of the party: a leader intent on a policy of anti-corruption and good governance, which the country's growing black middle class is increasingly concerned about. Moreover, Ramaphosa will likely try to strike the difficult balance between promoting business-friendly policies that jumpstart the economy while also shoring up support amongst the country's impoverished black majority — one of the ANC's core constituencies. If Ramaphosa can properly execute his ANC renaissance in the coming years, he could substantially slow the party's inevitable demise as the most dominant political force in the country.

But while the ANC's immediate future looks bright pending Zuma's removal, the party could still go down the path of other post-independence political giants, such as the Indian National Congress, that were unable to successfully re-emerge from a cloud of corruption and bad governance. As South Africa's multi-party democracy continues to mature, there is no question that constituencies will continue to lose loyalty to the liberation party — especially if it continues to be tied up in corruption scandals. Even if all goes to plan, Ramaphosa will struggle to reverse the ANC's long-term decline. But he has to start somewhere, and in this case, Zuma's removal is the ideal place.

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