CAPE TOWN, South Africa — South Africa’s ruling party called Tuesday for the resignation of President Jacob Zuma, a remarkable illustration of the political divisions that continue to widen here nearly two decades after Nelson Mandela’s retirement.
So far, Zuma has refused to submit to his own party’s demands, leaving some to wonder who exactly is at the helm in South Africa at the moment.
In December, the ruling party, the African National Congress, selected Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa as its leader, making him Zuma’s likely successor in the 2019 election. But many South Africans, including top members of the ANC, wanted Zuma gone before then.
Zuma’s term had been pockmarked by corruption scandals and a plummeting approval rating that drove even Mandela’s acolytes away from the party that had defeated apartheid.
Over the past week, Ramaphosa has held several protracted meetings with Zuma, hoping to prompt his resignation. When Zuma did not budge, the party’s leaders voted Tuesday to remove him, a move of enormous symbolic importance but without any legal implications for the presidency.
ANC Secretary General Ace Magashule told reporters that Zuma’s removal is necessary to provide “certainty to the people of South Africa at a time when the economic and social challenges facing the country require urgent and resolute response.”
Magashule said that Zuma had “agreed in principle” to resign but that he had asked for three to six months to step down. Magashule said the party wanted to act sooner and was expecting a response from Zuma on Wednesday.
For a party that has long feigned unity and strength in the face of embarrassing scandals and high-profile defections, the standoff with Zuma marks a rare moment for the ANC, its internal divisions now unmasked.
For years, Zuma has tried to deflect criticism by drawing on his associations with Mandela, with whom he was imprisoned for 10 years on Robben Island for conspiring to overthrow the apartheid government. But, as in Robert Mugabe’s Zimbabwe, South Africans grew tired of lofty speeches about liberation that were rarely followed by effective governance or development. In economic terms, many black South Africans say they are no better off now than they were during the years of white-nationalist rule.
The number of people living in poverty and extreme poverty both increased by about 3 million from 2011 to 2015. The unemployment rate hovers at more than 27 percent. The economy, one of the largest and most sophisticated in Africa, dipped briefly into recession last year.
“We’ve got university graduates who can’t get jobs sweeping the floor,” said Nosandi Kenene, 43, an unemployed mother of four in Cape Town’s Gugulethu settlement. “Who else can we blame but Zuma and his cronies?”
Many here see Ramaphosa, a successful businessman with roots in the anti-apartheid struggle, as the right leader to repair the ANC. He has expressed a commitment to rooting out corruption. Already, he has emerged as the face of a new South Africa, trying to lure foreign investors during an appearance in Davos, Switzerland, his ascent boosting the strength of the country’s currency.
If Ramaphosa could come to power before the 2019 elections, ANC leaders thought, he could lay the groundwork for an easy victory, slowly rebuilding the party’s reputation. For now, Zuma stands in the way of that plan.
Ironically, it was Zuma who in 2008 successfully pushed to recall a predecessor, Thabo Mbeki, after a court ruled that Mbeki had interfered in the work of government prosecutors. Mbeki’s resignation paved the way for Zuma’s rise as head of state.
That ascent marked a fundamental shift for the ANC, away from Mandela the peacemaker and Mbeki the technocrat — and toward Zuma, a traditionalist whose popularity was concentrated in the populous rural province of KwaZulu-Natal.
Zuma’s opponents derided his lack of a formal education, his polygamy, and a flurry of fraud, corruption and money-laundering charges. But his rural support base remained strong, even as “Zuma Must Go” demonstrations were held in the country’s major cities in recent years. Zuma’s ex-wife, Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, drew on that same base in a close ANC leadership race against Ramaphosa in December.
In March 2016, Zuma was found to have “failed to uphold” the constitution after ignoring an order by the government’s anti-corruption watchdog to pay back millions of dollars spent on nonsecurity upgrades to his private estate, Nkandla, including a swimming pool and cattle pen. Zuma apologized to the nation and paid back the mandated sum.
In October of that same year, the watchdog had another instruction for the president: Appoint a commission of inquiry into allegations that a wealthy family, the Guptas, used their proximity to Zuma to build up their business empire. A subsequent flood of emails leaked to the South African media, known as the “Gupta Leaks,” catalogued more examples of similar alleged improprieties and infuriated South African voters. Zuma and the Guptas have denied any wrongdoing.
It is Zuma’s rural support that, at least in part, appears to be driving Ramaphosa’s delicate political maneuvering with Zuma. In a television interview last month, he said of the transition: “We should never do it in a way that is going to humiliate President Zuma. We should never do it in a manner that is also going to divide the nation.”
But with Zuma refusing to step down, his party is left with few remaining options. It could allow Parliament to push Zuma out in a vote of no confidence. But such a vote probably would embolden opposition parties who could claim credit for removing the president.
The refusal also could open Zuma up to prosecution on corruption charges, a prospect that might be avoided if Ramaphosa offered him immunity in exchange for stepping down. According to local news reports, Ramaphosa has denied that an immunity deal was on the table.
Still, some here are optimistic that once the period of uncertainty ends and Zuma leaves office, progress will come.
“If you put a man of integrity in the Union Building, he doesn’t have to build us a rocket the next week,” said Ralph Mathekga, an independent political analyst and author of “When Zuma Goes,” referring to the seat of government. “He just needs to close the tap on corruption.”