JOHANNESBURG – President Jacob Zuma has survived a no-confidence vote in parliament but the episode has exposed rifts in the ruling African National Congress (ANC) that could affect his ability to influence the choice of its next leader.
The motion fell short of the 201 votes need to oust Zuma. But in an unprecedented revolt, about 30 ANC MPs sided with the opposition in the secret ballot, leaving Zuma with what one commentator said might prove to be a Phyrrhic victory.
The ANC will pick a new leader at a conference in December and Zuma favours his ex-wife Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, the former chairwoman of the African Union.
Vice President Cyril Ramaphosa, a unionist-turned-business tycoon, is viewed as her most likely rival after ANC alliance partners trade union federation Cosatu and the South African Communist Party (SACP) endorsed him for the top post.
Neither Dlamini-Zuma, 67, or Ramaphosa, 64, have declared their intention to run.
Whoever wins the contest will lead the ANC, which has ruled South Africa since the end of apartheid, into a national election in 2019.
Zuma’s priority is to ensure his chosen candidate succeeds him as party leader so he can complete his presidential term and avoid scrutiny over corruption charges his opponents would like reinstated, analysts said.
The rifts in the ANC “will complicate his life in the succession race,” political analyst Prince Mashele said.
“His support for Dlamini-Zuma is damaging. It may dent her credibility as all his sins will be heaped on her.”
Those “sins” include accusations of corruption, influence-peddling and economic mismanagement during the eight years he has been in power. Zuma denies any wrongdoing.
The opposition sought to oust Zuma after he removed the highly-regarded finance minister Pravin Gordhan in March, which hit the country’s financial markets and saw its credit rating downgraded to junk status by two agencies.
Unemployment is at a 14-year high of 27.7 percent and the economy is back in recession.
South Africa’s rand weakened nearly 1.5 percent immediately after the news of Zuma’s victory, with markets perceiving his survival as a negative.
However, the outcome of the vote paints a complicated picture.
Some analysts saw the 75-year-old’s survival of the no-confidence vote as a victory considering the outcome could have been much worse.
The speaker of parliament, Baleka Mbete, had ruled the ballot should be secret, a decision the opposition hoped would embolden ANC members unhappy with Zuma to vote against him.
Opposition leaders said between 26 to 39 ANC members had voted with the opposition and nine abstained. The ANC said more than 25 of its lawmakers voted against Zuma, while some members were absent without having tendered an apology.
“He still won first prize under the hardest conditions – a secret ballot,” Nomura analyst Peter Attard Montalto said. “Zuma is stronger.”
Montalto also predicted Dlamini-Zuma would win the race to replace Zuma but after a “close and very hard fought” election.
Although the no-confidence vote shows that support among ANC lawmakers for Zuma is on the wane, it is unclear how this rebellion could influence the succession battle in the branches.
The ANC leadership election in December will involve thousands of members and at least 90 percent will come from ANC branches where Zuma is strong.
Zuma, who has a “man of the people” appeal, remains popular with the ANC Youth and Women’s Leagues. Many of the ministers he appointed during the cabinet reshuffle in March also have strong local constituencies.
“Most votes for a ANC new party leader are made by local branches, where Mr. Zuma appears more popular,” said William Jackson of Capital Economics.
Many South Africans believe it is time the ANC had a female leader. Zuma has said the time is ripe for a woman president.
Zuma on Wednesday joined in a song praising Dlamini-Zuma at an event to mark Women’s Day in the Northen Cape province.
The president sang and danced along to thousands of women who chanted “we are ready for Nkosazana, on our marks, get set, we are ready for Nkosazana” as Dlamini-Zuma sat surrounded by the crowd.
Ramaphosa is viewed as more investor friendly and has pledged to fight the corruption that has plagued Zuma’s tenure.
Political analyst Daniel Silke said the branches had already taken their positions around their favourite candidates.
“Zuma’s victory does not translate into support for Dlamini-Zuma and neither does it reduce support Ramaphosa,” Silke said.
“What it has done it to expose the divisions in the party carved around the succession race and contributes to the succession race being fraught with even more tension.”
The opposition has said it will bring a motion to parliament for the assembly to be dissolved and general elections held, in its hope of building on its showing at local elections last year, when the ANC’s lost major cities in its worst election performance since the end of apartheid.