ANC support under threat from Jacob Zuma controversies

The SA president has agreed after years to pay towards the upgrade of his rural home

As the clock ticks down to South Africa's local elections later this year, the ruling African National Congress finds itself in a position it has not experienced before in relation to party leader Jacob Zuma.

The South African president has been mired in some level of political or personal controversy since he was first accused of taking bribes linked to a multi-billion rand arms deal in 1999. However, until very recently his indiscretions and recklessness were never directly perceived as a threat to the ruling party’s popularity at the polls.

Indeed, it was Zuma's support base in his home province of KwaZulu-Natal that shored up the ANC's national support levels in the 2009 and 2014 general elections, when the party haemorrhaged votes across the country.

Since its national electoral high watermark of 69 per cent in 2004, the ANC’s support has begun to decline in percentage terms, falling to 65 per cent in 2009 and to 62 per cent in 2014.


According to political analyst Richard Calland, an associate professor at the University of Cape Town's public law department, without Zuma at the helm the party would have fared much worse.

“In 2009 and 2014, he was a real asset to the ANC. The party’s support provincially fell on average by 8.1 per cent, but in KZN [KwaZulu-Natal] its support rose by 16 per cent, which meant party support overall only fell 4 per cent.

“The 2014 election was similar – the ANC’s national support fell 3 per cent, but it would have been worse without the party’s strong showing in KZN,” he said.

However, in this year’s local elections, which the government has indicated will take place within three months of May 18th, Zuma’s supporters in KwaZulu-Natal will not be able to mask poor results elsewhere.

Local elections in South Africa are first and foremost about the delivery of essential services. Too many ANC-run municipalities across the country have fared poorly in terms of their levels of competence in providing basic services.

As a result, the ANC's hold over a number of key urban and metro municipalities in the Eastern Cape and Gauteng provinces is expected to come under severe threat from opposition parties, especially the opposition Democratic Alliance, which has proved its self better at municipal service delivery.

The ANC could be further undermined as election season gets under way by a number of controversies in which Zuma is embroiled, some of which are coming to public legal conclusions that have the potential compromise the president.

After refusing for years to adhere to public protector Thuli Madonsela's recommendation that he pay a reasonable percentage of the 249 million rand (€14.5 million) upgrades to his rural Nklandla home, the president revised his position last month ahead of a constitutional court hearing into the matter.

The opposition parties refused his offer to have the finance minister decide how much was to be paid back to the public purse, saying the court now needed to rule on the issue to bring legal clarity to the public protector’s powers.

Embarrassingly, Zuma’s legal team were forced to admit in open court that the president should have adhered to the public protector’s recommendations. The court has reserved its judgment to a future unspecified date.

Zuma is also facing serious opposition on other fronts. He has faced heavy criticism about his abortive shuffle of finance ministers in December and has been criticised by union federation Cosatu for the government's new pension legislation.

Disapproval of his relationship with the Gupta business family from India reached new heights last week when a number of senior MPs claimed the three brothers offered them jobs as government ministers in return for favours.

The Guptas have allegedly sought to benefit from their friendship with the president by acquiring government contracts and favours, although both parties maintain there is nothing untoward going on.

A meeting of the ANC’s top decision-making body at the weekend resolved to continue backing the president in the scandal for now, but a high-level investigation has been launched to uncover the extent of the Guptas’ efforts to influence those in power.

In addition to all of that, over the coming weeks South Africans will hear if the Democratic Alliance’s court application to have corruption charges reinstated against Zuma, which were dropped in 2009 ahead of his appointment as president, is successful or not.

Calland, the associate professor at the University of Cape Town, says the president’s previously all-powerful position within the ANC has been eroded mostly by the Nklandla affair, as the ANC MPs who supported him in parliament have now been left looking – at election time – like incompetents.

“He has managed to irritate all elements of the ANC, according to my sources within the party. The constitutional court ruling will also be very important in regards to the ANC’s mood towards him,” he says.

“If it rules he knowingly defied the public protector – an institution established under the constitution – then he has broken his oath of office as president, which will make election campaigning difficult for the ANC.”