Zuma Lashes Out at Critics Within South Africa's Ruling ANC

(Bloomberg) -- South African President Jacob Zuma lashed out at critics within his African National Congress, saying they’re threatening the ruling party’s hold on power.

“Factionalism is a cancer that must be rooted out,” Zuma, 75, said Friday in his opening address to a six-day ANC conference in Johannesburg that will discuss issues ranging from land reform and ownership of the country’s mines to corruption. “We also need to look at the issue of ill-discipline. Some members and leaders of the ANC have become primary conveyors of negative information about their own movement.”

Zuma Lashes Out at Critics Within South Africa's Ruling ANC

The conference takes place as the 105-year-old ANC grapples with internal divisions over a graft scandal that’s implicated Zuma and some of his closest allies, and over who’ll succeed him as party leader in December and probably as president in 2019. A group of ANC veterans, who’ve urged Zuma to step down, boycotted the gathering after falling out with party bosses over what should be done to address the situation.

A recession, a 28 percent unemployment rate and a decision by two ratings companies to downgrade the nation’s sovereign credit rating to junk status after Zuma’s March 31 firing of the respected Pravin Gordhan as his finance minister have added to the public discord. Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa, ANC Secretary-General Gwede Mantashe and party Treasurer-General Zweli Mkhize criticized Gordhan’s dismissal.

Parliament has scheduled a vote of no confidence in Zuma on Aug. 3, the National Assembly said in a statement Friday. The speaker is still considering a demand by opposition parties that the ballot be secret, it said.

‘Leadership Crisis’

“I don’t think the policy conference can tackle the leadership crisis we are facing,” said Khulu Mbatha, a party veteran who argues that it failed to transform itself from a liberation movement into a modern political formation in his book, ‘Why the ANC Failed to Govern.’ “The policy conferences that have been held since the ANC came to power have not made it a better party. It’s all about who will come in and who will stay out.” 

Since Nelson Mandela led to the ANC to power in Africa’s most industrialized economy after the first multiracial elections in 1994, it’s won more than 60 percent support in every national vote. Repeated allegations that Zuma has been party to the misuse and looting of state funds have eroded the party’s support, contributing to its loss of Johannesburg, the economic hub, and Pretoria, the capital, in August municipal elections.

‘Arrogant’ ANC

The electoral losses were due to “the perception in society that we are soft on corruption, self-serving and that the ANC is arrogant,” Zuma said. “The ANC needs to cleanse itself.’’

Secretary-General Gwede Mantashe said in a report to the conference that the party is riddled with divisions, is generally perceived to be corrupt and has a growing trust deficit with the public. He called for drastic action for the ANC to arrest its the decline in support.

A former ANC spy chief, Zuma has faced accusations that he and some of his ministers have allowed the Gupta family, who are the president’s friends and in business with his son, to influence the appointment of cabinet members and given them special treatment to enable them to buy a coal business. While Zuma and the Guptas have denied wrongdoing, Mantashe said the party had been too dismissive of the allegations leveled against them.

In his speech, Zuma accused opposition parties of using the courts to wage political battles and said he supported a judicial commission of inquiry into “state capture,” a term used to describe undue influence on government by private business interests.

Business Interests

“We need to know which business interests have sought to influence the ANC and its government over the years, with what impact, and what must be done to end the said capture,” he said.

The president’s address received muted applause from most provincial delegations aside from KwaZulu-Natal, his home region, and a few delegates left the hall rolling their hands in a gesture used to signal a substitution in a soccer match.

Zuma has previously accused his detractors of racism and blamed the party’s declining fortunes on its failure to secure adequate control over the economy. He has backed land seizures without compensation and new rules to force mining companies to sell bigger stakes to black shareholders. In his address, he reiterated his call for “radical socio-economic transformation” and said it should be done through legislation, state-owned companies and institutions and the national budget.

The president’s answers to the country’s economic woes haven’t gone down well with investors.

“We are waiting for some real action to drive the important issues of the day, which are economic growth, solving unemployment, getting our credit rating sorted out and improving consumer and investor confidence,” said George Herman, chief investment officer at Citadel Investment Services in Cape Town.

The front-runners in the succession race are Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, 68, Zuma’s ex-wife, and the former chairwoman of the African Union Commission, who’s backed his policy pronouncements, and Ramaphosa, 64, who’s emphasized the need to root out corruption and implement existing policies more effectively. 

Neither leader will be able to mend the divisions in the ANC, which risks losing power nationally in 2019 elections, and the conference is unlikely to have a meaningful impact on policy, according to Benedict Dube, a political analyst at the Xubera Institute for Research and Development in the eastern port city of Durban.

“South Africans have evolved. They are no longer loyal to the ANC; now they are loyal to their needs,” he said. “The policy conference is irrelevant. It’s the ANC who will fool itself if they think that people still have an interest in this soap opera.”