JOHANNESBURG — South Africa’s ruling African National Congress party has decided to recall President Jacob Zuma, leaving South Africans waiting to see whether the president will abide by the party’s decision and hand in his resignation.
Pressure on Zuma to step down has mounted over the past few months, throwing the politics of Africa’s most robust and diverse economy into limbo. While his departure no longer seems in doubt, it remains to be seen how much turmoil he will leave behind.
Zuma will leave behind a a country grappling with unemployment, endemic corruption, a slowing economy and water shortages threatening to leave its second-biggest city, Cape Town, with dry taps.
“We are expecting the president to respond tomorrow,” ANC Secretary General Ace Magashule told a packed press room at the ANC headquarters in downtown Johannesburg on Tuesday, adding that the party expected him to accede to their wishes. “I don’t know what will happen. Let’s leave it to President Jacob Zuma.”
Zuma, whose nine years in office have been dogged by corruption scandals and seen a decline in the popularity of Nelson Mandela’s historic liberation movement, lost support the key support of the ANC after being replaced as party leader in December.
Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa, the new ANC president, is expected to become acting president if Zuma steps down.
Magashule said Zuma had “agreed in principle” to resign, but that he had asked for three to six months to step down. He said the party wanted to act sooner to provide “certainty to the people of South Africa at a time when the economic and social challenges facing the country require urgent and resolute response by all sections of society.”
He noted the decision to recall Zuma was not unanimous within the leadership meeting, but that the party would now rally behind the decision.
Zuma came to power in 2009, but his last years in office have been mired in a series of high-profile corruption scandals and accusations of mismanagement that has seen a steady decline in the popularity of Nelson Mandela’s storied liberation movement.
Several local media outlets reported early Tuesday that a defiant Zuma had refused to resign in the face of party pressure.
If the party does indeed recall Zuma and he resigns, Ramaphosa would become acting president, according to South African law.
If Zuma loses that motion of no confidence, he and his cabinet would be forced to step down and the parliamentary speaker would assume the role of acting president, says Lawson Naidoo, executive secretary of the Council for the Advancement of the South African Constitution.
“The one thing we’ve learned is never to try to guess what Zuma might do,” said Naidoo. “He’s a desperate man at the moment.”
The extraordinary 24 hours follows a chaotic political week in South Africa, in which Ramaphosa and Zuma sat in closed-door talks to negotiate the terms of his exit. On Sunday, during a speech in Cape Town, Ramaphosa pledged that the party’s top brass would “finalize” those talks on Monday.
“Our people want this matter to be finalized, the national executive committee (NEC) will be doing precisely that,” Ramaphosa said. “It is the interests of you, our people, that must be put first, and not the interests of anyone else.”
To Zuma’s critics, the president’s early departure — his term as head of state is not up until national elections next year — would mark the end of a frustrating era in which the nation drifted and Zuma’s name has become nearly synonymous with the use of the public office for personal gain.
An anti-apartheid struggle veteran with a knack for connecting with his rural base, many South Africans welcomed Zuma’s election in 2009 after the technocratic government Thabo Mbeki.
Ironically, Zuma could be ousted by the same methods he once orchestrated against Mbeki.
Mbeki sacked Zuma in 2005 from his post as deputy president after Zuma was implicated in corruption allegations. After his ouster, Zuma maneuvered his way back to power and was elected ANC president in a stunning political comeback just two years later.
In 2008, Mbeki was recalled as president by the Zuma-led party after a court ruled Mbeki interfered in the work of government prosecutors. Mbeki followed the party’s lead and resigned from office, paving the way for Zuma’s ascent as head of state.
But nearly a decade later, many of the promises of a better life in a democratic South Africa have slipped away on Zuma’s watch. The number of people living in poverty and extreme poverty both increased by some 3 million between 2011 and 2015. Unemployment hovers at more than 27 percent. The under-resourced public health and education sectors struggle to deliver to nearly 57 million South Africans, and the economy, one of the largest and most sophisticated in Africa, dipped briefly into recession last year.
South Africans have also become fed up with a series of corruption allegations engulfing Zuma and some of his family members and friends.
A wily political operator, Zuma has become the ultimate “Teflon president” in recent years, surviving several opposition-led attempts in parliament to unseat him. Opposition politicians have also been trying — unsuccessfully, so far — to get 18 charges of fraud, corruption and other crimes against him reinstated that were dropped before he became president. He has denied the charges.
In March 2016, Zuma was found to have “failed to uphold” the constitution after ignoring an order by the government’s anti-corruption watchdog to pay back millions spent on nonsecurity upgrades to his private estate, Nkandla, including a swimming pool and cattle pen. Zuma apologized to the nation and paid back the mandated sum of money.
In October that same year, the watchdog had another instruction for Zuma: appoint a commission of inquiry into allegations that a wealthy family, the Guptas, used their proximity to Zuma to build up their business empire. A subsequent flood of emails leaked to the South African press, known as the “Gupta Leaks,” catalogued more examples of similar alleged improprieties and infuriated South African voters. Zuma and the Guptas have denied any wrongdoing.
Should Ramaphosa become the next president, many South Africans hope the 65-year-old businessman and anti-apartheid activist will put South Africa on a new path, taking on corruption and restoring the reputation of Africa’s oldest liberation movement.
“Leaders make a difference. It changes the atmosphere,” said William Gumede, executive chairman of the Democracy Works Foundation. “It potentially could be a kind of Mandela moment.”