Concerns grow over what South African President has been offered to leave office

With South Africa’s ruling party in tense talks over the early exit of Jacob Zuma from the presidency, there are growing concerns over what the deeply unpopular leader may be promised in order to leave power.

Mr Zuma has dug in his heels, refusing to step down even when the top leadership of his party, the African National Congress, asked him to do so.

Facing chaos at the annual State of the Nation address to open parliament on Thursday, the party took the unprecedented step of postponing what would have been a showpiece speech for Mr Zuma.

At the centre of the impasse is a power struggle between Mr Zuma, who is facing corruption charges and Cyril Ramaphosa, a market-friendly, anti-corruption reformist who was narrowly elected leader of the ANC at a conference in December.

Mr Zuma has retained enough support among party officials to make it difficult for Mr Ramaphosa to swiftly see him out.

Negotiations are underway between Mr Zuma and Mr Ramaphosa, as well as the ANC’s “top six” leaders, in an attempt to reach an agreement that will see him willingly leave office. Mr Ramaphosa is due to address a rally on Sunday in Cape Town to mark a countdown to centenary celebrations of Nelson Mandela’s birth.

Gwede Mantashe, the ANC’s national chairperson, told a crowd of party supporters on Saturday that South Africans should be patient and that “there is no disagreement about where we want to go” with Mr Zuma.

But Ralph Mathekga, a political analyst and the author of the book When Zuma Goes, said the country is growing frustrated with the lack of clarity on when the President will leave power.

“Legally, we still have a President, whose name is Zuma and everyone hates him. That much is clear. But there is a plethora of misinformation and no certainty from the ANC. This is not fair to South Africans.”

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He added: “Zuma was so full of surprises that we as a nation got numb to it all. Now the last surprise is him hanging on.”

Mr Zuma has faced near-constant scandals during his nine years as president and is the ANC’s biggest liability ahead of elections in 2019.

Most worrying for him is the expected reinstatement of 783 counts of corruption and fraud related to an arms deal. A court ruled last year that the decision to drop the case – on the eve of Mr Zuma’s election as South African president in 2009 – was “irrational” and the charges should be reinstated.   

Mr Zuma may also be called to testify in an upcoming judicial commission of inquiry into “state capture,” a sprawling scandal in which the Gupta brothers, close friends of Mr Zuma and business associates of his son, are accused of exerting improper influence on cabinet appointments and lucrative contracts from state-owned enterprises. 

Mr Ramaphosa has reportedly told ANC MPs that it is impossible to offer Mr Zuma immunity from prosecution.

The opposition Democratic Alliance has warned it will rush to court if there is any attempt to grant Mr Zuma immunity.

“We cannot condone or allow Zuma to escape accountability for breaking his oath of office and putting his friends and family above the best interests of the people of South Africa,” said James Selfe, the party’s federal council chairperson.

South Africans have repeatedly taken to the streets in recent years demanding that Mr Zuma resign. Under his leadership South Africa has seen anaemic economic growth, as well as rising unemployment and poverty levels.

The ANC considers its elected officials, even the president, as “deployees” of the party who must stand down if asked. Mr Zuma’s predecessor as ANC leader, Thabo Mbeki, quit the presidency in 2008 after the ANC took the decision to “recall” him in a campaign led by Mr Zuma.

But Mr Zuma has flouted party tradition by refusing to go. Should he continue to refuse, he could be removed in a 22 February non-confidence motion brought to parliament by the opposition.

As the impasse drags on, one of the polygamous Mr Zuma’s four current wives, Thobeka Madiba-Zuma, has provoked controversy by posting an Instagram photo of herself with her husband and a comment that the fight was “about to get ugly”.

Robert Besseling, executive director of EXX Africa, a political risk advisory firm, said that control over the national prosecuting authority and state-owned enterprises will be “crucially important” in the negotiations over Mr Zuma’s ouster.

“Once he secures the national presidency, Cyril Ramaphosa is likely to announce a wide-ranging and high-profile anti-corruption campaign in order to weaken his political rivals and consolidate his authority over the ANC and the government,” Mr Besseling said.

Meanwhile some South Africans are planning the celebrations for when Mr Zuma falls at long last. On Twitter, the #ZumaIsGoneParty hashtag imagines dancing and partying in the streets.

“This is moving in one direction,” said Daniel Silke, director of the Cape Town-based Political Futures Consultancy. “Whether it takes a week or just a few days, the end is nigh for Jacob Zuma.”

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