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Zuma risks showdown with own party in SA power play

Party slates reappointment of state power utility CEO Molefe.

After months of attacks by opposition parties, labor unions and the courts, South African President Jacob Zuma now appears to be on a collision course with a more dangerous adversary: his own ruling African National Congress.

ANC secretary-general Gwede Mantashe said this week that the party told Zuma’s administration to rescind a decision to reappoint Brian Molefe, who’d been implicated in a graft probe, as the head of the state power utility. Last month three of the party’s top six leaders slated the president’s decision to fire Pravin Gordhan as finance minister, a move that cost the nation its investment-grade credit rating from S&P Global Ratings and Fitch Ratings.

The faction fighting is pushing the ANC across a line that threatens its integrity as a coherent political force, said  Aubrey Matshiqi, an independent political analyst.

“It is a line beyond which an organisation such as the ANC becomes a snake that starts eating itself from the tail,” he said.

The standoff comes ahead of a no-confidence motion in Zuma brought by opposition lawmakers and a December conference where the ANC will elect a new leader, who’ll also be its presidential candidate in 2019 elections. Zuma has indicated that he favors Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, his ex-wife and the former head of the African Union commission, to succeed him, while his opponents are rallying around Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa.

Escalating conflict

“Zuma is in control of government and the party is on many levels organizing and mobilizing against not only Zuma, but the government,” Andre Duvenhage, a politics professor at North West University in Potchefstroom, west of Johannesburg, said by phone. “Conflict is escalating as a result of the succession battle.”

The ANC signaled the depth of its frustration with Zuma’s administration when it responded to Molefe’s reappointment as chief executive officer of Eskom Holdings by lamenting the “South African public’s absolute exasperation and anger at what seems to be government’s lackluster and lackadaisical approach to dealing decisively with corruption.”

So far, Zuma has held the upper hand within the ANC’s decision-making national executive committee, which rejected a proposal to remove him at a meeting in November. While Ramaphosa, Mantashe and Treasurer-General Zweli Mkhize criticized Gordhan’s firing, the ANC’s national working committee, which oversees the day-to-day running of the party, endorsed the decision.

Tenuous grip

Yet the 75-year-old president’s grip on power remains tenuous. The national executive committee may again discuss his removal at a scheduled meeting this month, while the Constitutional Court is considering an application to order a secret ballot for the planned no-confidence vote. Opposition parties hope that will entice ANC legislators to vote against Zuma because it removes the risk of them losing their jobs.

“The danger for Zuma is that he overreaches and by going outside of ANC protocol and policies, which are fairly well established, he risks losing or cutting off his support base,” Mike Davies, the founder of political advisory company Kigoda Consulting, said in an interview in Cape Town. 

The ANC’s former head of intelligence, Zuma’s eight-year tenure as president has been dogged by scandal, including a finding by the nation’s top court that he violated his oath of office by refusing to repay taxpayer money spent on his private home. The public backlash contributed to the ANC losing control of Johannesburg, the economic hub, Pretoria, the capital, and other towns in municipal elections in August.

Gupta allegations

In a report last year, the nation’s graft ombudsman called for a judicial probe to determine if Zuma allowed members of the Gupta family, who are in business with his son, to influence cabinet appointments and the awarding of state contracts. It also indicated that Molefe favored the Guptas by awarding coal-supply contracts and helping them buy Optimum Coal Holdings. Zuma and the Guptas denied wrongdoing, as did Molefe, who said he resigned in the interests of good corporate governance.

“South Africa may just be a few inches from the throes of a mafia state from which there may be no return — a recipe for a failed state,” South African Council of Churches secretary-general Malusi Mpumlwana said Thursday while presenting a report about corruption.

Zuma hasn’t commented on Molefe’s reappointment and justified his March 31 decision to fire Gordhan and make 19 other changes to his executive by saying he needed to bring more young people and women into the cabinet. Zuma’s spokesman Bongani Ngqulunga and ANC spokesman Zizi Kodwa didn’t immediately respond to calls seeking comment.

Molefe’s return to Eskom shows the ANC is no longer in charge of the country, Joel Netshitenzhe, a member of its national executive, told party members at a meeting this month in the central town of Colesberg.

Whatever the outcome, the power struggle between Zuma and the ANC is damaging the party, according to Matshiqi.

“There was a time when the ANC would have been insulated by its dominance in the electoral landscape, but that time has passed,” Matshiqi said. “Ultimately the ANC will lose power if does not manage these internal divisions.”

© 2017 Bloomberg

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