(Bloomberg) -- As South Africa’s ex-President, Jacob Zuma, prepares to appear in court next month on corruption charges, the ruling African National Congress is scrambling to distance itself from its former leader.
ANC Secretary-General Ace Magashule made the party’s position on Zuma clear on Sunday when he welcomed efforts by the new president, Cyril Ramaphosa, to put an end to a “sad chapter of systemic corruption.” While ANC members were welcome to show support for the former leader at his trial, they shouldn’t wear party regalia while doing so, he told reporters in Cape Town after a meeting of its National Executive Committee, which Zuma attended.
Zuma, 75, will face 16 charges ranging from fraud to racketeering after he lost a nine-year battle to prevent the case from being reinstated. The trial, which is set to get under way on April 6 and is likely to drag on for years, will be a constant reminder to voters of the repeated scandals that dogged Zuma during his nine years as president and the pivotal role the ruling party played in shielding him from censure.
“It seems to me a complete break from the past,” Mpumelelo Mkhabela, a political analyst at the University of Pretoria’s Center of Governance Innovation, said by phone. “It also shows the extent to which the ANC believes that Zuma is a liability and the sooner his association with the ANC is forgotten, the better. He is almost like a symbol of the degeneration of the ANC.”
While the ANC has won outright majorities in every election held since it took power in the first multiracial contest in 1994, Zuma’s misrule eroded its support and it lost control of several cities, including the economic hub Johannesburg, in a 2016 municipal vote. National elections are due to take place around the middle of next year.
The unequivocal backing Zuma previously enjoyed from the party was because his allies used to control all its top leadership structures, and many of them were dependent on him for their government jobs. The power dynamics shifted in December, when Ramaphosa won control of the party, and Zuma was forced to quit in February under threat of being voted out of office through a no-confidence motion.
Magashule, a long-standing Zuma ally, said the former president should be presumed innocent under proven otherwise.
“Allegations are allegations,” he said. “We are not protecting or defending anyone.”
Zuma, who has denied wrongdoing, was served with an indictment on Monday, his lawyer Michael Hulley said, adding that he was were preparing an application to review the decision to prosecute.
While Zuma favored his ex-wife Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, the former head of the African Union commission to succeed him, Ramaphosa secured control of the party on an anti-graft ticket with the backing of several powerful provincial party bosses and the ANC’s labor union and communist allies.
Since taking office, Ramaphosa has fired a number of Zuma appointees from the cabinet, suspended the head of the national tax agency and done a u-turn on several of his predecessor’s key policies. There’s also been a crackdown on graft, with law enforcement officers targeting the Guptas, who are friends of Zuma, and their allies.
South Africa dodged a third junk rating on March 23, when Moody’s Investors Service kept its assessment of the nation’s debt unchanged at the lowest investment grade, citing more transparent and predictable policies under Ramaphosa. Yields on south African benchmark bond yields fell to the lowest in almost three years on Monday, while the rand rose to the highest against the dollar since Feb. 15.
The ANC’s stance toward Zuma’s trial will have “no material effect on the amount of control Ramaphosa wields over the ANC, but at the perception level it enables him to say: ‘I’m reclaiming the party’,” Mkhabela said.
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