South Africa’s ruling African National Congress is fending off fresh crises as the bitter fight for control of the former liberation party grows before President Jacob Zuma steps down as party leader in December.
A racially divisive public relations campaign, sexual allegations against the deputy president and what appears to be a political assassination highlight the struggle for power within Nelson Mandela’s storied movement.
“It’s a really tense time for the ANC,” said Daniel Silke, an independent political analyst. The scandals are a testament to the ANC’s instability as it gets ready to select a new leader at its conference in December, he said.
South Africa’s economy has suffered from the party’s turmoil, dipping briefly into recession in recent months while aftershocks continue from Zuma’s firing of respected finance minister Pravin Gordhan earlier this year.
Last week British public relations firm Bell Pottinger was expelled from a U.K. industry body over a campaign it ran in South Africa to stir up racial tensions to benefit a company owned by the Guptas, a wealthy Indian immigrant business family with ties to Zuma.
Zuma’s relationship with the Gupta family has become a key source of conflict within the ANC, particularly after local media published a series of leaked emails allegedly showing how the family used its proximity to the president to influence government and state companies.
The Guptas and Zuma have denied the allegations, but ANC leaders have pledged to purge the government of what is called the capture of the state by the business family, a thinly veiled criticism of the president.
And then there are the allegations of sexual shenanigans by Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa. Last week, South African newspaper the Sunday Independent published a report saying it had viewed emails “linking” Ramaphosa, widely seen as the ANC presidential hopeful for the party’s “anti-Zuma” camp, to several extramarital affairs. Ramaphosa, who has denied elements of the report, chalked it up as part of the larger “dirty war” and disinformation campaign aimed at ANC members who have taken a stand against corruption.
The other front-runner to lead the ANC is Zuma’s ex-wife, Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, who is widely seen as having the president’s support. Whoever leads the party ahead of 2019 elections likely will become South Africa’s next president.
Separately, the ANC mourned the death this month of Sindiso Magaqa, a former party youth leader in KwaZulu-Natal province who was shot in July and was seen as the latest casualty in a series of killings of ANC members there. Observers say the political assassinations in the longtime ANC stronghold have been fueled by party divisions.
“The fight starts at the lowest level,” said Mcebisi Ndletyana, an associate professor at the University of Johannesburg. “It creates instability and robs them of good leaders at municipalities” and makes the ANC look bad, he said.
South Africa’s opposition parties have seized on the turbulence in the ruling party, which has been in power since the country’s first all-race elections in 1994. Although the largest opposition party, the Democratic Alliance, has gained ground and won key municipalities including Johannesburg and Pretoria in last year’s elections, many expect the ANC to retain its national majority in two years’ time.
Last month, dozens of ANC lawmakers voted in favor of ousting Zuma in a parliamentary vote of no confidence, that was held by secret ballot. The motion failed, as have several no-confidence attempts before it, but the larger-than-expected number of defections from the ANC successfully highlighted the deep divisions in the party.
The ANC has slammed the opposition’s actions as distractions from the work of running the country, saying they demonstrate a lack of respect for citizens who voted in the current government.
South Africans, meanwhile, are bracing for more revelations ahead of the ANC’s meeting in December. The scene is all too familiar, said William Bird, director of Media Monitoring Africa.
“The blows have been raining down on us for so long,” Bird said. It’s gotten to the point “where we’re grateful for a gentle slap.”