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A flag, depicting unpopular South African President Jacob Zuma, who is likely to shape the landscape of future African politics, is flown over New Years’ festivities in Durban. (Rajesh Jantilal/AFP/Getty Images)
A flag, depicting unpopular South African President Jacob Zuma, who is likely to shape the landscape of future African politics, is flown over New Years’ festivities in Durban. (Rajesh Jantilal/AFP/Getty Images)

South Africa’s Jacob Zuma holds the key to Africa’s political future Add to ...

Two of Africa’s most crucial political decisions this year will be settled in secretive backroom manoeuvring, heavily influenced by one of the continent’s most unpopular politicians: South African President Jacob Zuma.

Mr. Zuma, dogged by corruption scandals and legal troubles, will be a key player in determining the next boss of the African Union and the next leader of South Africa’s ruling party. Both posts will be filled this year, with the AU decision in late January and the South African appointment expected in December.

Both decisions will have a big influence on the future of the International Criminal Court, which has been under mounting criticism from African governments, several of which have announced plans to withdraw from the court. The Canadian government has been campaigning to save the ICC from the crisis.

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Mr. Zuma is likely to remain South Africa’s President until his current term ends in 2019, but is expected to step down as head of the ruling party, the African National Congress, in December.

In the race for the top party position, he is believed to be promoting his ex-wife, former cabinet minister Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, who is chairperson of the African Union Commission, which is the AU’s top job.

She and Mr. Zuma have four children, and she is seen as the most likely candidate to save Mr. Zuma from the threat of future prosecution on corruption charges.

Her main rival for the ANC leadership is South Africa’s Deputy President, Cyril Ramaphosa. He is a wealthy businessman and former union leader with a long history as a pragmatic mediator in political disputes in South Africa and across the continent.

While his supporters include some of the country’s biggest trade unions and several ANC factions that have strongly criticized Mr. Zuma, he faces an uphill battle against the candidate preferred by the President, who still controls the main levers of power in the party.

The ANC leadership contest will likely be decided in backroom deal-making where Mr. Zuma has a heavy advantage. If Ms. Dlamini-Zuma wins, as most analysts expect, the political status quo in South Africa will continue, including plans to withdraw from the ICC, the heaviest blow the court has suffered in years.

A recent investigation by South Africa’s ombudsman, known as the Public Protector, found disturbing evidence that Mr. Zuma’s government had been “captured” by his business cronies, the Gupta family. Deputy finance minister Mcebisi Jonas told the investigation the Guptas offered him about $60,000 in cash and a $60-million bank payment, plus a cabinet promotion, if he agreed to get rid of officials who were blocking their business plans.

Those allegations are unlikely to be pursued if Ms. Dlamini-Zuma becomes ANC leader. As head of the ruling party, she would be virtually certain to succeed Mr. Zuma as national president in 2019, and the police and prosecutors would remain under his influence.

After years of scandals and corruption revelations, barely a third of South Africans trust Mr. Zuma, polls say. His approval rating is among the lowest of any African leader.

Ms. Dlamini-Zuma’s successor for the top AU job will be chosen in late January, at the African Union’s next summit. Five candidates are in the running, but the most likely winner is Kenyan Foreign Minister Amina Mohamed.

Officially, the Southern African bloc of countries has endorsed Botswana’s Foreign Minister, Pelonomi Venson-Moitoi, who failed to get enough votes in an attempt at the AU’s top job last July. But analysts believe Mr. Zuma is quietly supporting Ms. Mohamed.

The other candidates are from Senegal, Chad and Equatorial Guinea. The winner needs support from two-thirds of the African governments, and the vote is secret.

Canada has provided about $89-million in direct financial support to the African Union over the past decade, according to a government spokesman.

Kenya has campaigned aggressively for Ms. Mohamed. The entire East African bloc of countries backs her, and the support from Mr. Zuma could be enough to put her ahead. In 2012, South Africa used its lobbying clout to win the post for Ms. Dlamini-Zuma.

A victory for Ms. Mohamed would be bad news for the ICC, because Kenya is one of the staunchest opponents of the court, especially after the court filed charges against several of Kenya’s top politicians, including President Uhuru Kenyatta. The charges against Mr. Kenyatta were dropped after witnesses disappeared or were allegedly bribed to recant their evidence.

As head of the African Union, Ms. Mohamed would be in a strong position to mobilize greater opposition to the international court. South Africa, Burundi and Gambia announced their withdrawal from the court last year, and others such as Kenya are contemplating a similar move.

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