Deputy threatens to oust president again – only this time, it's Zuma in peril


Five years ago on a shabby university campus in Polokwane, the capital of impoverished Limpopo Province, the President of South Africa was heckled by his own party members as he took to the podium. Within 24 hours Thabo Mbeki had been ousted as leader of the ruling African National Congress.

It was an unprecedented humiliation for a man who told his aides prior to the leadership vote that "no liberation movement would reject its own leader". The crowd chanted that night for Jacob Zuma, who 18 months later – following a general election – became South Africa's President as well as the leader of the ANC.

It was the culmination of a fierce insurgency against a powerful sitting President fought against a backdrop of rape allegations and corruption charges. Now, as the country counts down to another ANC conference next month, it is Mr Zuma who is fighting for his political life.

His likely challenger is Kgalema Motlanthe. Like Mr Zuma in 2007, Mr Motlanthe is a deputy who has been eyeing the top job, trying to calculate if he has enough support to unseat his boss. At the weekend Mr Motlanthe won the backing of several influential branches of the party, including ANC secretary-general Gwede Mantashe.

The last leadership battle pitted an intellectual and aloof incumbent, Mr Mbeki, against a garrulous streetfighter and man of the people. Mr Zuma is fortunate that his opponent is less fearsome than the one who felled Mr Mbeki. Mr Motlanthe comes from the student wing of the ANC, unlike the older man who cut his teeth running intelligence operations in the liberation struggle.

"Motlanthe is the last chance for the ANC to rescue itself," said William Gumede, author of a new history of the movement, Restless Nation. "The party is so dominant in South Africa that if it is undemocratic then society itself becomes undemocratic."

The mild-mannered son of a mine worker is touted as the clean pair of hands needed to reform a party overrun by crony capitalism. He owes much of his standing in the ANC to his period as a stop-gap President after Mr Mbeki resigned. For 18 months the white-bearded Mr Motlanthe played the statesman while the man known as "JZ" waited for a national election in 2009 to confirm him as head of state. Mr Motlanthe's sober and understated presence was soon missed once Mr Zuma took over. Some observers had hoped that the "100 per cent Zulu boy" as the President styles himself, with a common touch and ready populism, could be a Ronald Reagan figure for South Africa, helping the country feel easier with itself.

Those hopes dissolved quickly as the new leader's habit of telling different, competing constituencies what they wanted to hear led to a period of confusion in the ruling party.

Mr Zuma's sprawling personal life, where his open polygamy and frequent marriages have rarely left the news, has embarrassed many in South Africa. The Marikana mineworkers' massacre in August – the worst state violence since the end of apartheid – happened just as Mr Zuma was embroiled in a scandal over taxpayers' money being used to finance a £17m redevelopment of his rural homestead.

Despite the 2007 Polokwane coup and Mr Zuma's undoubted unpopularity there are several factors that favour the incumbent. The ANC is not a "one member one vote" organisation and only 4,500 individuals will get to vote at Mangaung. The Electoral College has many within it who know that their council seat or state contract depends on support for the leader.

Furthermore, the primary process in which Mr Motlanthe is currently flourishing, is not binding and branch representatives can plump for whomever they choose once the conference vote gets under way. Behind the scenes a frantic effort is under way to persuade Mr Motlanthe to drop his challenge and accept the chance to run for the national presidency in 2014, leaving Mr Zuma as head of the ANC.

Power corrupts: the history of the ANC

1994 Nelson Mandela leads the ANC to victory in South Africa's first democratic elections.

1999 A £5.4bn arms deal leads to allegations of corruption. Jacob Zuma, deputy president of the ANC, is later investigated, and his former financial adviser Schabir Shaik jailed. In June, ANC wins election with Thabo Mbeki as President.

2003 Winnie Mandela, head of ANC Women's League, convicted of theft and fraud.

2004 ANC is re-elected.

2007 Jacob Zuma defeats Mbeki in a bitterly contested election for the leadership of the ANC. A week later, Zuma is ordered to stand trial on corruption charges.

2009 Economy in recession for first time in 17 years. Corruption allegations dropped against Zuma. ANC elected with Zuma President.

2012 After weeks of strikes, police open fire on workers at a platinum mine in Marikana, killing at least 34 people. Government sets up judicial inquiry.

Richard Hall

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Guru Careers: Software Developer / C# Developer

£40-50K: Guru Careers: We are seeking an experienced Software / C# Developer w...

Guru Careers: Software Developer

£35 - 40k + Benefits: Guru Careers: We are seeking a Software Developer (JavaS...

SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant / Resourcer

£18000 - £23000 per annum + Commission: SThree: As a Trainee Recruitment Consu...

Ashdown Group: UI Developer - (UI, HTML, CSS, JavaScript, AngularJS)

£25000 - £40000 per annum: Ashdown Group: UI Developer - (UI, JavaScript, HTML...

Day In a Page

Sun, sex and an anthropological study: One British academic's summer of hell in Magaluf

Sun, sex and an anthropological study

One academic’s summer of hell in Magaluf
From Shakespeare to Rising Damp... to Vicious

Frances de la Tour's 50-year triumph

'Rising Damp' brought De la Tour such recognition that she could be forgiven if she'd never been able to move on. But at 70, she continues to flourish - and to beguile
'That Whitsun, I was late getting away...'

Ian McMillan on the Whitsun Weddings

This weekend is Whitsun, and while the festival may no longer resonate, Larkin's best-loved poem, lives on - along with the train journey at the heart of it
Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath in a new light

Songs from the bell jar

Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath
How one man's day in high heels showed him that Cannes must change its 'no flats' policy

One man's day in high heels

...showed him that Cannes must change its 'flats' policy
Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

Dominic Rossi of Fidelity says his pressure on business to control rewards is working. But why aren’t other fund managers helping?
The King David Hotel gives precious work to Palestinians - unless peace talks are on

King David Hotel: Palestinians not included

The King David is special to Jerusalem. Nick Kochan checked in and discovered it has some special arrangements, too
More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years

End of the Aussie brain drain

More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years
Meditation is touted as a cure for mental instability but can it actually be bad for you?

Can meditation be bad for you?

Researching a mass murder, Dr Miguel Farias discovered that, far from bringing inner peace, meditation can leave devotees in pieces
Eurovision 2015: Australians will be cheering on their first-ever entrant this Saturday

Australia's first-ever Eurovision entrant

Australia, a nation of kitsch-worshippers, has always loved the Eurovision Song Contest. Maggie Alderson says it'll fit in fine
Letterman's final Late Show: Laughter, but no tears, as David takes his bow after 33 years

Laughter, but no tears, as Letterman takes his bow after 33 years

Veteran talkshow host steps down to plaudits from four presidents
Ivor Novello Awards 2015: Hozier wins with anti-Catholic song 'Take Me To Church' as John Whittingdale leads praise for Black Sabbath

Hozier's 'blasphemous' song takes Novello award

Singer joins Ed Sheeran and Clean Bandit in celebration of the best in British and Irish music
Tequila gold rush: The spirit has gone from a cheap shot to a multi-billion pound product

Join the tequila gold rush

The spirit has gone from a cheap shot to a multi-billion pound product
12 best statement wallpapers

12 best statement wallpapers

Make an impact and transform a room with a conversation-starting pattern
Paul Scholes column: Does David De Gea really want to leave Manchester United to fight it out for the No 1 spot at Real Madrid?

Paul Scholes column

Does David De Gea really want to leave Manchester United to fight it out for the No 1 spot at Real Madrid?