Kgalema Motlanthe’s failure to openly challenge South African President Jacob Zuma for the leadership of the African National Congress threatens to leave him sidelined in the ruling party.
Nominations made by ANC members ahead of a party election next week show Zuma could win backing from about 70 percent of the 4,500 conference delegates to retain leadership for a second five-year term. Zuma’s supporters dropped Motlanthe, 63, from their list of preferred candidates for the top six party positions, with most opting for Cyril Ramaphosa, the union leader turned tycoon, to replace him as deputy ANC leader.
Zuma, 70, who wrested control of the ANC from Thabo Mbeki in a party election in 2007, has faced little opposition to his re-election as party leader even as his administration battles to curb a 26 percent unemployment rate and public protests over a lack of housing, water and other services. Motlanthe abided by a party ban on campaigning and refused to say if he would contest the presidency, a strategy that may have backfired.
“ANC members are wondering if they want a leader who is not willing to take a position,” Sipho Seepe, a political analyst in Pretoria, said in a Dec. 3 phone interview. “It’s a reluctance which shows a certain degree of cowardice.”
The 100-year-old ANC led the fight against white segregationist rule and has dominated South African politics since sweeping to power under Nelson Mandela in 1994. If Zuma is re-elected at the ANC’s national conference from Dec. 16-20, he becomes the party’s presidential candidate in the country’s next vote scheduled for 2014.
The incoming ANC president is faced with restoring investor confidence in an environment of slowing growth. The rand has declined 5.1 percent against the dollar since Moody’s Investors Service downgraded South Africa’s credit rating on Sept. 27. The currency was trading at 8.6764 against the dollar as of 5:50 p.m. in Johannesburg.
Motlanthe yesterday praised Zuma in a lecture organized by the ANC to commemorate its centenary. Zuma was instrumental in political talks that led to the first all-race elections in 1994 and in helping to end violence between the ANC and rivals in KwaZulu-Natal, Motlanthe said, according to the South African Press Association.
“President Jacob Zuma’s life is exemplary of how positive thinking thrives against all odds,” the Johannesburg-based SAPA quoted Motlanthe as saying.
Zuma won majority support in six of the nine provinces, while Motlanthe won backing from the other three. The party’s electoral commission will now approach candidates for the top six positions to determine if they’re willing to accept nomination.
“I am still agonizing over it,” Motlanthe told reporters in Pretoria on Nov. 30. “I don’t have to be in a position of leadership. I have never regarded myself as having a political career.”
Motlanthe, a former labor leader, served as president of the country for eight months between the time Mbeki was ousted from his post and Zuma installed after April 2009 elections. As deputy president he has been responsible for coordinating the building of new power plants, improving railways and expanding ports, while also overseeing the government’s anti-AIDS program.
“Even the people who are very loyal to him might have been discouraged by the fact that he hasn’t made clear that he is prepared to stand,” Somadoda Fikeni, a political analyst at the Pretoria-based University of South Africa, said in a Dec. 3 phone interview. “This is hardly a way of contesting this race.”
Motlanthe’s popularity has improved amongst ANC members, according to a poll by research company Ipsos Markinor. His average approval rating jumped to 64 percent in November from 57 percent in May, according to a survey of 3,563 randomly selected adult South Africans. Zuma’s rating among ANC supporters slipped to 70 percent from 71 percent in May, Ipsos said in an e-mailed statement today.
Even so, Motlanthe says he isn’t interested in striking deals with various factions within the ANC that would allow him to retain his post. That may lessen his chances of winning a top post in the party and pave the way for Ramaphosa, who is the second-richest black South African, according to Johannesburg- based Sunday Times newspaper.
Motlanthe “is clearly trying to play quite a principled game,” said Zwelethu Jolobe, a political analyst at the University of Cape Town. “I have yet to see a candidate who has been successful on that basis. For the position of deputy president, it looks like Ramaphosa pretty much has it in the bag.”
Ramaphosa, 60, hasn’t said whether he will contest the election. Party officials may yet broker a deal in which Motlanthe retains the deputy president post by agreeing not to challenge Zuma, while Ramaphosa is persuaded to refuse the No. 2 spot, Seepe said.
Many senior ANC members want to avoid a repetition of the divisive leadership battle that occurred at its last elective conference in 2007 when Mbeki was ousted and hope to still reach consensus over posts, said Daniel Silke, a political analyst and author of “Tracking the Future: Top trends that will shape South Africa and the World”.
“The ANC cannot withstand another tear in its political fabric,” Silke said in a Nov. 30 phone interview from Cape Town. “This is a short-term patchwork job.”
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