Two days after his election as new leader of South Africa’s ruling party, Cyril Ramaphosa described his victory as merely the beginning of his reform campaign. “It gives us a beachhead,” he told his supporters in a leaked video.
It was an apt military metaphor for a campaign that could be long and arduous. If his election was a D-Day beachhead, months of struggle still lie ahead. And to reach his anti-corruption goals, Mr. Ramaphosa and his allies must find a way to remove their biggest obstacle: President Jacob Zuma.
Their first opportunity will be on Wednesday, when the national executive of the African National Congress holds its first meeting since Mr. Ramaphosa’s narrow and dramatic victory over Mr. Zuma’s candidate at an ANC conference last month.
Mr. Ramaphosa, a former trade-union leader and ANC veteran who became a wealthy businessman, campaigned on a promise to get rid of the corruption that has spiralled out of control for years. But it’s still unclear how he will dislodge Mr. Zuma and his loyalists, who remain deeply entrenched in the government with authority over the police, prosecutors and state security agency.
South Africa media are reporting that Mr. Ramaphosa’s supporters will seek to force Mr. Zuma’s resignation at the national executive meeting on Wednesday. Since they control only about half of the 80-member ANC executive, however, an attempt to remove the President could be just the beginning of a battle that will continue for weeks or months.
Under the quirks of the ANC’s rules, Mr. Ramaphosa has now replaced Mr. Zuma as party leader, but Mr. Zuma can remain as South Africa’s president until the national election next year. His term as ANC leader has expired, but his term as national president still has 16 months to run – unless the ANC orders him to step down.
The separate levels of authority held by Mr. Ramaphosa and Mr. Zuma has created what the ANC sometimes calls “two centres of power” – a potential conflict between the ruling party and the national government. South Africa’s cabinet, for example, is largely loyal to Mr. Zuma, who retains the full legal power to appoint cabinet ministers as long as he remains President.
One key goal, for the Ramaphosa faction, is to prevent Mr. Zuma from delivering the annual State of the Nation speech in parliament next month. It’s a major event, setting the agenda for the entire year, and the symbolism of the unpopular Mr. Zuma giving the speech would be costly to the ANC as it struggles to improve its image before the 2019 election. In recent polls, Mr. Zuma’s approval rating has been as low as 18 per cent, the worst ever recorded for a South African president since apartheid.
If the national executive remains evenly divided between the two rival camps, or even if Mr. Rampahosa holds a slight edge, it will be difficult to force Mr. Zuma to leave. But some analysts believe that the momentum is running in Mr. Ramaphosa’s favour, giving him a growing arsenal of pressure tactics to begin nudging Mr. Zuma aside.
“If Zuma does not resign, it is difficult to see how decisive action to remove him can be avoided,” said South African political analyst Anthony Butler in a recent commentary. “There is no reason for the new leadership to prop up Zuma and his cronies, and every reason to remove him forthwith.”
“Zuma’s power has been based on fear, rather than loyalty. Now he has lost his cloak of invulnerability. There is no sympathetic successor waiting in the wings to protect this lame duck.”
If the ANC’s national executive is unable to persuade Mr. Zuma to step down, the Ramaphosa faction has other weapons at its disposal. Recent court rulings have ordered the launching of a judicial inquiry into corruption, with Mr. Zuma likely to be a major target of the probe. Another court ruling gave Mr. Ramaphosa the power to appoint a new national prosecutor, replacing a Zuma ally.
Both rulings are under appeal, but Mr. Zuma is unlikely to win the appeals. The new national prosecutor, once appointed, could reinstate long-delayed corruption charges against Mr. Zuma.
Another ruling – by South Africa’s highest court, the Constitutional Court – ordered Parliament to create clear rules for the removal of a president. This could create another avenue for forcing Mr. Zuma’s resignation, since many ANC members would be willing to join the opposition parties in a vote of non-confidence against him.
On Sunday, a spokesman announced that Parliament will hold committee meetings on Wednesday and Thursday to move ahead with the drafting of new rules for removing the President. With an election approaching in early 2019, the Ramaphosa faction is hoping that Mr. Zuma’s removal will help cleanse the ANC’s reputation for corruption.
Some of his supporters are even portraying Mr. Ramaphosa as “too rich” to be susceptible to corruption. He will “not be tempted to steal,” ANC national chairperson Gwede Mantashe told ANC members on Friday. “He is wealthy, he is rich. If he steals, we will ask him, ‘Why do you steal, because you have enough?'”
Mr. Ramaphosa’s critics, however, often remind South Africans that he was a director of the platinum mining company, Lonmin, in August, 2012, when 34 protesters were killed by police. As a director, he had called for police intervention at the mine after violence erupted during a labour strike. An inquiry found no evidence that he was responsible for the massacre, but he apologized for the “inappropriate” wording of his messages.