JOHANNESBURG — After weeks of resisting efforts to dislodge him, embattled South African President Jacob Zuma is expected to resign Wednesday after the party he longtime led, the African National Congress, called for him to step down.
ANC Secretary-General Ace Magashule said Zuma pleaded for an extra three to six months in power, a request rejected by the national executive committee of the party. The committee, or NEC, met for 13 hours in a marathon session that continued from Monday afternoon into the early hours of Tuesday.
“We discussed and discussed and discussed, and at the end of discussions, once you take a resolution, it is called a collective decision,” Magashule told a news conference Tuesday. “The decision of the NEC is now final: Recall President Jacob Zuma. That decision can’t change.
“We expect the president to respond tomorrow. Tomorrow the president will respond.”
Magashule said the ANC’s national executive committee had decided Zuma’s deputy, Cyril Ramaphosa, would replace Zuma as president, after Ramaphosa won the leadership of the party in December. No decision has been taken on who will succeed Ramaphosa as deputy president.
A bitter power struggle erupted in the ruling party after Ramaphosa narrowly won its leadership in December, defeating Zuma’s preferred successor, his ex-wife, Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma.
Ramaphosa was due to take over as president after elections in 2019, but he and his supporters were determined to force Zuma swiftly from power, arguing that the party needed time to rebuild its declining support before then.
Zuma’s term has been marked with allegations of corruption and patronage, high unemployment and a declining economy. He has been accused of allowing a powerful business family with whom he was friendly to exercise vast influence in government decisions on Cabinet positions and contracts.
But Magashule said the ANC did not recall the president for any wrongdoing.
“President Zuma has not been found guilty in any court of law. When we took this decision, we didn’t take this decision because Jacob Zuma has done anything wrong.”
Magashule’s explanation on the reasons for Zuma’s dismissal skirted the scandal that has dogged his presidency, stating only that the decision was procedural — the desire to ensure that the incoming president lead the party into elections next year. It was felt that the president of the party also should be president of the country, he said.
“The collective of the ANC believe that (party) president Cyril Ramaphosa must take over the (national) presidency. You can’t have another president who is not the president of the ANC,” Magashule said, in comments that appear to overturn ANC tradition.
He said Ramaphosa would deliver the state of the nation address to Parliament in coming weeks.
The move to force Zuma out risks alienating sections of the deeply divided ANC in the lead-up to elections. Magashule, who has been one of Zuma’s strongest supporters, said the president’s request for an extra three to six months in power was “a fair request to plead. It’s just that the NEC felt we can’t wait for that period. The period is too long.”
He added that the committee would brief ANC lawmakers and members in the provinces on why the decision was taken on the weekend. Magashule predicted that party members would rally behind Ramaphosa.
Zuma still commands significant support and respect in the party, as a prominent member of the struggle against apartheid. Ramaphosa wants Zuma out but is trying to avoid alienating his rival’s supporters going into elections next year.
Zuma joined the ANC in 1959, headed the intelligence arm of the ANC’s underground military wing and was jailed for 10 years on Robben Island for his activities against the apartheid government.
Although Magashule and Ramaphosa have both spoken of the need to preserve Zuma’s dignity and to avoid humiliating him, the spectacle of a party dislodging a man determined to stay on has been anything but dignified.
Ramaphosa last year accused Zuma of rape. At the recent World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, he said Zuma was surrounded by corrupt figures and vowed a sweeping cleanup. He and his supporters have been at pains to present the country as split awkwardly between two conflicting centers of power — himself and Zuma — although constitutionally, Zuma was entitled to see out his term as president.
Some have expressed fears that Zuma may defy the NEC and refuse to stand down, but Magashule said that talks between Zuma and party leaders on Monday were “cordial” and that Zuma recognized the NEC’s right to remove him.
If he defied the NEC decision, Zuma could have been toppled in Parliament with opposition and ANC support. But the ANC would be loath to pursue such a course because it would see Zuma, Ramaphosa and the entire Cabinet have to step down.
The speaker in Parliament, Baleka Mbete, then would become acting president for a maximum of 30 days until Parliament voted in a new leader.
Ramaphosa increased the pressure on Zuma to depart over a week ago, shortly after returning from Davos. When ANC leaders met with Zuma earlier this month requesting he stand down to enable a “transition,” Zuma refused, telling them he did not know what they meant by the word.
Ramaphosa spent much of last week unsuccessfully trying to negotiate with Zuma on his departure. Over the weekend, the deputy president hardened his line, saying that the emergency NEC meeting Monday would finalize the matter.
Magashule said the party had embraced “radical economic transformation” under Ramaphosa, including the seizure of land without compensation. A similar policy led to steep economic decline and the collapse of many farms in neighboring Zimbabwe when introduced by longtime ruler Robert Mugabe in 2000.
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