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South Africa's President Jacob Zuma celebrates his re-election as Party President at the National Conference of the ruling African National Congress (ANC) in Bloemfontein Dec. 18, 2012. (MIKE HUTCHINGS/REUTERS)
South Africa's President Jacob Zuma celebrates his re-election as Party President at the National Conference of the ruling African National Congress (ANC) in Bloemfontein Dec. 18, 2012. (MIKE HUTCHINGS/REUTERS)

South Africa’s ANC re-elects Zuma as party president Add to ...

Within moments of President Jacob Zuma’s landslide victory on Tuesday, his supporters were raucously taunting the “forces of change” who had tried to topple him as leader of South Africa’s ruling party.

Rolling their hands above their heads to mock the soccer-derived “substitution” gesture of their opponents, the Zuma supporters were in a mood to humiliate the defeated candidates. It was a hint of the bitter rifts that exist in the African National Congress – rifts that will continue to plague the ANC for years to come.

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Mr. Zuma and his new deputy leader, wealthy businessman Cyril Ramaphosa, both secured overwhelming victories on Tuesday, capturing about 75 per cent of the 3,977 voting delegates at the ANC’s elective conference, the first such conference since Mr. Zuma’s shocking triumph over ex-president Thabo Mbeki in 2007.

While it was superficially a vote for stability and continuity, it is unlikely to halt the continuing decline in the ANC’s popularity in South Africa, opening the way for further moves to nudge Mr. Zuma aside in the future, possibly to make room for Mr. Ramaphosa.

When the voting results were announced on Tuesday in a sweltering tent at the University of the Free State, the delegates burst into rowdy cheers and songs for Mr. Zuma. Many of them took to the streets of Bloemfontein, honking horns and waving two fingers to symbolize the President’s second term.

Mr. Zuma and the ANC will be heavy favourites in the national election in 2014, but the party is worried that it could continue to decline from the two-thirds margins that it traditionally enjoyed.

Mr. Zuma’s sole opponent in the ANC leadership race, former president and deputy president Kgalema Motlanthe, was supported by just a quarter of delegates.

The biggest problem for Mr. Zuma is that he is much less popular in the country than he is in the party. He has been haunted by scandals over corruption allegations and lavish government spending on his palatial village home, and the ANC’s popular support has already been declining under his leadership.

To bolster his support, Mr. Zuma was forced to recruit Mr. Ramaphosa, a former union leader and protégé of anti-apartheid hero Nelson Mandela ,who has amassed a $275-million fortune with interests in mining, banking, and consumer giants such as Coca-Cola and McDonald’s.

Mr. Ramaphosa did not agree to run for the deputy president’s job until the last minute, prompting speculation that he held out for concessions from Mr. Zuma. Some analysts predict he will become the unofficial “manager” of the country, leaving Mr. Zuma in more of a ceremonial role.

“The ANC has decided to live with a weakened President, but they’ve opened a few doors,” said Susan Booysen, a political scientist at the University of Witwatersrand in Johannesburg.

Mr. Ramaphosa actually won more votes than Mr. Zuma on Tuesday, a reminder that he could push for more power.

Mr. Zuma’s landslide victory also seems more impressive than it actually is, Ms. Booysen added. Because his supporters dominated the delegate-selection process, the voting delegates were not representative of the party as a whole. “It’s a very selected group, almost hand-picked.”

Another problem for Mr. Zuma was visible just outside the conference, where hawkers are selling DVDs of the “Marikana Massacre” – the clash in which 34 protesting mineworkers were shot dead by police in August. The wave of wildcat strikes and violence at mines across South Africa has inflicted heavy damage on the Zuma government, exposing it as disconnected from the workers.

As the ANC chose its new leaders, meanwhile, it learned that four white men had been arrested in connection with an alleged right-wing plot to attack the ANC conference and kill Mr. Zuma.

The men, charged with treason and terrorism, had allegedly devised a plan called “the Slaughter of Manguang,” a reference to the ANC’s name for the convention. They are accused of plotting to use mortars, grenades and machine guns to attack the convention site, which they had allegedly photographed in advance.

Another problem for Mr. Zuma was visible just outside the conference, where hawkers are selling DVDs of the “Marikana Massacre” – the clash in which 34 protesting mineworkers were shot dead by police in August. The wave of wildcat strikes and violence at mines across South Africa has inflicted heavy damage on the Zuma government, exposing it as disconnected from the workers.

Follow on Twitter: @geoffreyyork

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