The ruling African National Congress’ historic losses in South Africa’s local elections have called into question the leadership of President Jacob Zuma as head of the continent’s most industrialised nation.
The ANC last week suffered what analysts called a “savage indictment”, garnering less than 54 per cent of ballots cast — an eight-point drop from the last local poll in 2011 and its worst showing since the fall of white-minority rule in 1994.
Of the country’s six most populous cities, the ANC won an outright majority in only one: Durban, Zuma’s traditional stronghold.
But it suffered embarrassingly in the capital Pretoria where it came second to the main opposition Democratic Alliance, which also scored big in Nelson Mandela Bay, a southern municipality named after the country’s iconic late leader.
The election was largely seen as a referendum on President Zuma’s rule, but it also highlighted the declining popularity of the party that led South Africa’s anti-apartheid struggle.
And as Mr Mandela’s party reels from weak leadership and political divisions, some in the ANC admit that all is not well.
“There is something wrong on a national level that we are not paying attention to,” the party’s Secretary General Gwede Mantashe said at the weekend.
Analysts say the party leadership has been stubborn in refusing to rein in its controversial president.
Mr Zuma, who has three more years to serve out his term, has been dogged by scandal throughout his presidency.
UPGRADING PRIVATE RESIDENCE
Last month, South Africa’s highest court ruled he pay back $500,000 of public funds spent upgrading his private Nkandla residence with facilities including a chicken coop and a swimming pool. The ANC has staunchly defended him.
But after the poor showing at the polls, the party would be “much more open to a change of leadership than they would have a been one week ago,” said Richard Calland, a political analyst at the University of Cape Town.
“Urgent steps must be taken (to) tackle the elephant in the room. It is clear that President Jacob Zuma has become a huge liability,” wrote columnist Onkgopotse Tabane in the Business Day newspaper on Monday.
Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa — an anti-apartheid heavyweight — is the presumed frontrunner to replace Mr Zuma should he be forced out before the end of his term.
“Where we have shown areas of weakness, we are going to get better and improve — that’s who we are,” the unionist-turned-businessman said last week as the poor results poured in.
Critics say urban and middle class voters have begun to tire of the continuous controversy surrounding 74-year-old Zuma, and warn of a serious backlash if the ANC fails to act fast.
ANC IN BIG TROUBLE
“The ANC is in big trouble,” analyst Koffi Kouakou told AFP. “The only way to perhaps attempt to save the ANC is by having President Zuma resign and having the team that surrounds him cleaned up. If not, the ANC is in real big trouble in the long term.”
But Mr Zuma, who has thus far survived every curveball thrown his direction, may not be on his way out just yet.
“I don’t think he is likely to go without a fight,” said Mr Calland. “It’s more likely he will survive until the end of next year,” Mr Calland said — when the ANC may vote to recall him at its next national elective congress.
In the meantime at least two rival ANC camps will start wrangling to succeed Mr Zuma — one in support of Mr Ramaphosa, and the other backing Mr Zuma’s ex-wife and outgoing chairwoman of the African Union Commission, Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma.
In the meantime, “political uncertainty will drive continued policy confusion in the mining, energy, power, private security, and agriculture sectors, while frustrating cost-cutting measures,” said EXX Africa.
A downgrade of South Africa’s debt by at least one credit ratings agency to junk status “is almost inevitable this year,” the intelligence company warned.