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Drama, Uncertainty as South Africa's Ruling Party Chooses Leader


Members of the ruling African National Congress applaud as the results are read of a no-confidence vote by MP's in parliament in Cape Town South Africa, Aug. 8, 2017.

South Africa’s powerful ruling party is coming together at a time when it has never been more divided. Starting Saturday, 5,000 delegates of the African National Congress will meet in Johannesburg to anoint a successor to party leader and president Jacob Zuma.

For years Zuma wallowed in serious, mounting corruption allegations, and just this week was hit with a stinging blow when the High Court in Pretoria censured him for trying to evade corruption investigations. As a result of that and other scandals, Zuma’s status has deeply divided the party, with some top party officials openly calling for him to step down as president.

Two figures are officially in the running to replace Zuma as leader of the African National Congress: Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa and Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, a party stalwart and experienced diplomat who was once, for 16 years, married to Zuma. But others may emerge when voting begins during the weekend. The ANC has won a majority in every national poll since the beginning of democracy in 1994, meaning the new leader is likely to be a strong presidential candidate in 2019.

Former African Union chairperson Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma chats with South Africa's deputy president Cyril Ramaphosa ahead of the African National Congress 5th National Policy Conference at the Nasrec Expo Centre in Soweto, June 30, 2017.
Former African Union chairperson Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma chats with South Africa's deputy president Cyril Ramaphosa ahead of the African National Congress 5th National Policy Conference at the Nasrec Expo Centre in Soweto, June 30, 2017.

VOA has spoken to analysts and experts, and the only thing they have agreed on is this: Anything can happen here. Analyst Ebrahim Fakir says he thinks such uncertainty is a sign of political maturity. He refused to bet on a winner.

“If I knew, I’d be sailing on the Caribbean,” he said, with a laugh. “And the uncertainty and the fluidity of it is part of the democratic process. So I think we should accept that because it’s a democratic process, because democracy is about contestation, democracy is about competition, because you have competing visions, you have competing candidates, you have competing individuals, the context is fluid, the outcome is uncertain, and that’s how it is in a democracy.”

President’s Pick: A good or a bad thing?

In the past week, South African courts have struck serious blows against the president, ruling against Zuma for his actions in challenging recommendations from the nation’s former anti-corruption czar over his alleged corrupt activities. Zuma supports Dlamini-Zuma, and that, says analyst Ralph Mathekga, could cut two ways.

President Jacob Zuma addresses the parliament in Cape Town, South Africa, Nov. 2, 2017.
President Jacob Zuma addresses the parliament in Cape Town, South Africa, Nov. 2, 2017.

“Whoever is being supported or anointed by President Jacob Zuma to lead the ANC, one way or another, it will contribute in some form to the extension of his legacy,” he said. “So members of the ANC will have to reflect on that. The court hearing, from that point of view, would certainly be negative for him. But I do think that upon a very closer observation as to what is happening within the party, there is already a narrative that is said to ignore such kind of decision as the court decision against President Jacob Zuma. “

Mathekga also refused to predict a winner, but said that in a way, the leadership contest is only one of the ANC’s worries. The conference has yet to begin, and already, some analysts are predicting that this party schism might cause the event to collapse entirely. Mathekga says the ANC needs to try to avoid that.

“If the ANC cannot hold a conference properly and elect a leader in a free, fair and open manner,” he said, “it will be quite difficult to trust the ANC to do the same thing within the country.”

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