(Bloomberg) -- South Africa’s High Court overturned the election of African National Congress leaders allied to President Jacob Zuma in the eastern KwaZulu-Natal province, a decision that could sway the outcome of the race to become leader of the party and the nation.
The decisions taken at the ANC provincial elective conference in 2015 “are declared null and void,” Judge Jerome Mnguni said Tuesday at a hearing in Pietermaritzburg, KwaZulu-Natal’s capital. The conference wasn’t lawfully convened because it hadn’t been requested by at least a third of ANC branches in the province as required, he said in his written ruling.
The verdict throws into disarray the ANC leadership in KwaZulu-Natal, Zuma’s home region. With the biggest party membership of South Africa’s nine provinces, it was expected to wield great influence over a conference in December to name a new leader. The party in the region is split into two loose camps, one that backs the president and his ex-wife and preferred successor, Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, and another that supports Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa.
The pro-Zuma faction immediately said it would appeal the ruling, which could mean the current leadership, headed by Sihle Zikalala, who ousted Senzo Mchunu in the election, remains in office for the time being. The pro-Mchunu group said the decision means that the current provincial leadership would have to step down and fresh elections would be held. About 1,000 supporters of the Mchunu camp gathered outside the court and cheered when the verdict was announced. There was no sign of Zikalala’s backers.
“This outcome is a serious game changer,” said Theo Venter, a political analyst at North-West University’s business school in Potchefstroom, west of Johannesburg. “Even if it goes on appeal, the legitimacy of the current leadership is seriously undermined.”
The ANC should decide how to regulate its internal processes and decide on the consequences that should result from the ruling, the court said.
The incumbent ANC leadership in KwaZulu-Natal will remain in place until the party decides on a course of action, spokesman Zizi Kodwa told Johannesburg-based broadcaster eNCA. Secretary-General Gwede Mantashe said last week the outcome of the case wouldn’t delay the December conference because the branches rather than provincial authorities will elect the new leadership.
The ANC is in turmoil because of the scandals that have shadowed Zuma, 75, during his eight-year presidency. The Constitutional Court found that he violated his oath of office by failing to repay taxpayer funds spent on his private home. The nation’s graft ombudsman accused him of allowing members of the Gupta family, who are in business with his son, to influence cabinet appointments and the award of state contracts. Zuma and the Guptas deny wrongdoing.
The economy has also suffered, with the nation falling into a recession this year, unemployment at a 14-year high and business confidence close to a three-decade low.
In KwaZulu-Natal, the ANC is deeply divided and probably won’t present a unified voice at the December conference, said Benedict Dube, a political analyst at the Xubera Institute for Research and Development in the eastern city of Durban.
“It would be very naive to cluster KwaZulu-Natal as one bloc,” he said. “There are regions that are supporting Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma and there are regions that are supporting Ramaphosa, and there are regions that are confused about who to go with.”
The province has previously been viewed as a Zuma stronghold. His successor as ANC leader will also be the party’s presidential candidate in 2019 elections.
Dlamini-Zuma, 68, has echoed Zuma’s calls for “radical economic transformation” to address racially based income disparities that date back to apartheid rule, while Ramaphosa, 64, has emphasized the need to stamp out corruption and foster inclusive economic growth. Both leaders have called for unity within the 105-year-old ANC, which has ruled Africa’s most industrialized economy since the end of white minority rule in 1994.
While the incumbent KwaZulu-Natal leaders may be able to cling to office until after the ANC’s Dec. 16-20 elective conference, their lobbying efforts may be undermined because they will be seen by some as illegitimate, said Susan Booysen, a political science professor at the University of the Witwatersrand’s School of Governance.
“Their campaigning will have huge question marks hanging over it now,” she said. “This is a very important ruling.”