- The Washington Times - Thursday, October 5, 2017

The African National Congress led the fight to end South Africa’s racist apartheid regime in the early 1990s and has used that narrative to dominate the country’s politics ever since.

But now the ANC, transitioning a civil rights movement led by Nobel Peace Prize laureate Nelson Mandela to a conventional political party, is threatening to break apart at the seams amid corruption claims against its embattled standard-bearer, President Jacob Zuma.

That’s partly due to trying to please all of the people all of the time, analysts say.

“The ANC, from the day it was founded, sought to appease a wide array of interests,” said University of Johannesburg political scientist Kwandiwe Kondlo. “These contradictions are starting to boil over and haunt the ANC.”

Corruption scandals, including the firing of Finance Minister Pravin Gordhan in April after a falling-out with Mr. Zuma, have undermined confidence in the president’s leadership and raised questions about the stability of Africa’s most industrialized economy.

In recent months, the South African rand has plummeted on world currency markets and South African sovereign debt has fallen to junk status. In June, the country emerged from its second recession in 10 years but grew at an annual rate of only 1.1 percent for the second quarter.

Only 28 percent of South Africans support Mr. Zuma, according to a recent Ipsos poll, while about 65 percent feel he should resign. More than half of those polled described themselves as ANC supporters.

The ANC’s internal divisions were on embarrassing display at a regional party meeting Sunday, where delegates hurled chairs and police fired stun grenades to break up brawls between pro- and anti-Zuma factions.

Some say the divisions have grown so intense that the party may postpone a December vote to pick a successor to run the ruling party, leaving Mr. Zuma in the post through the next national election, now set for 2019.

Voters have punished the ANC as a result, giving the opposition Democratic Alliance wins in crucial cities such as Johannesburg, Pretoria and Nelson Mandela Bay a year ago.

The 75-year-old Mr. Zuma, a hero of the apartheid struggle who spent a decade with Mandela in the notorious Robben Island prison, has successfully fought off challenges to his authority in the past, but his moves to retain power have taken on a new edge in the face of a string of bad news reports. In an attempt to bolster the ANC’s support among its base of rural supporters — and taking a page from the playbook of longtime strongman Robert Mugabe in neighboring Zimbabwe — Mr. Zuma has even floated the possibility of expropriating land now owned by white farmers.

“Let’s expropriate land without compensation,” said Kwazi Mshengu, chairman of the ANC Youth League, a pillar of Mr. Zuma’s political base.

Under the country’s post-apartheid constitution, Mr. Zuma can’t simply seize private land. But even contemplating such desperate measures reflects how Mr. Zuma’s reputation has tanked after years of damaging scandals, said Ebrahim Fakir, a political analyst at ASRI, a public policy institute.

“It’s a nice rhetorical flourish because, in reality, it can’t happen,” he said. “It’s not just to win votes, but also it’s part of this populist rhetoric.”

History of corruption

Mr. Zuma’s problems started in the late 1990s after he and his financial advisers were accused of bribery and corruption over a multibillion-dollar arms deal. His adviser went to jail, but Mr. Zuma managed to stay out of court. In 2009, prosecutors dropped over 700 corruption charges just days after he was elected president for the first time.

In 2013 authorities discovered that Mr. Zuma has spent $20 million on his home in remote Nkandla, KwaZulu-Natal. It was far more than he could afford solely on his government salary. Most recently, Mr. Zuma’s close ties to the Gupta family, owners of coal mines, media outlets and other interests, have raised questions about how they have won public contracts at inflated prices.

“This is the underworld where bags of cash are dropped in people’s houses,” said Mr. Kondlo. “It’s a reality.”

Mr. Zuma has repeatedly denied the allegations.

“I wish to make it categorically clear that I have never instructed or directed any state institution to give contracts to anyone whatsoever,” he told the national parliament last month, eliciting boos from lawmakers in the chamber. “I’ve stated on numerous occasions my intent to establish a commission of inquiry to investigate matters. I am pursuing this course.”

In addition to economic challenges and corruption accusations, Mr. Zuma faces a tricky next few months in politics.

The ANC leadership fight is proving a particularly knotty political problem. Assuming the vote is not postponed, whoever wins instantly becomes a competing source of power within the ruling party. The two leading candidates are Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, Mr. Zuma’s ex-wife and the former chief of the African Union, and Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa.

The choice could have immense consequences for Mr. Zuma’s legacy. While she is no longer his wife, many of the president’s critics view Ms. Dlamini-Zuma as his political proxy as well.

“Another Zuma presidency will anger a lot of people,” said Mr. Kondlo.

But the analyst said that if Mr. Ramaphosa becomes the ANC leader, it could lead to an irreversible rupture with the Zuma faction of the party breaking away. ANC factions backing Mr. Zuma suffered a sharp reverse last month when a court voided the victory of a key Zuma ally in a 2015 vote in the party conference in KwaZulu-Natal, the party’s largest and most influential province and a center of support for Ms. Dlamini-Zuma.

The pressure may be growing on Mr. Zuma to postpone the December leadership vote if it becomes clearer that Mr. Ramaphosa will win.

Mr. Fakir, the analyst, said he hoped Mr. Zuma and his detractors somehow ended their disputes before ruining an organization that has been central to South Africa’s democratic rebirth.

“Do we want the ANC to split because it’s good for democratic competition and more responsive government?” he asked. For all its failings, “the ANC doesn’t get enough credit for ushering in 23 years of relative stability and for constructing effectively the largest social democratic welfare state in sub-Saharan Africa.”

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