South African President Jacob Zuma waves as he leaves parliament in Cape Town, South Africa on Feb. 6, 2018, after it was announced that this year's state of the nation address that was to be delivered on Thursday will be postponed. Officials say Mr. Zuma will not make the state of the nation address because of concerns that lawmakers may disrupt the event.

Presidential limbo in South Africa: Why Zuma's appeal persists

The African National Congress has been in power since the end of apartheid. Party leaders are keen to replace scandal-laden President Zuma ahead of their toughest election yet. But if frustrations with Mr. Zuma are telling, so is his lingering support.

“Uuuummmshini wam, uuuummmmshini wam!”

On a hot day last December, the familiar melody rippled across the cavernous hall, pulling delegates at the convention of South Africa’s ruling party to their feet with whoops and cheers. The tune was an old anti-apartheid struggle song, “Awulethu Umshini Wami” – “Bring Me My Machine Gun” – and it was being led by the man who had made it famous again: the country’s president, Jacob Zuma.

As Mr. Zuma’s deep, gleeful voice belted across the room, the moment seemed to encapsulate the strange turning point at which his party, the African National Congress, suddenly found itself.

On the one hand, Zuma, whose administration has been scarred by corruption and economic mismanagement, was quickly becoming a pariah within the ANC, which has ruled South Africa uninterrupted since the end of apartheid in 1994.

A few minutes after his song and dance, the party would announce that it had elected as its next leader a man who in many ways is the anti-Zuma – a buttoned-up businessman named Cyril Ramaphosa, who speaks a crisp, formal English and promises to woo back international investors. When general elections roll around in mid-2019, the ANC hopes Mr. Ramaphosa will win back voters disillusioned with Zuma’s scandal-laden presidency.

At the same time, however, the crowd’s reaction to Zuma’s trademark wiggle was a reminder that he is still in many ways the heart of South Africa’s beleaguered ruling party – a folksy former liberation fighter with no formal schooling who promises “radical economic transformation” for the country’s impoverished masses.

Fast forward two months, however, and the ANC seems to have firmly decided which way to turn. It is away from the president – who, it seems all but certain, will give up that title within days. Over the last week, the ANC’s executive committee began back-room negotiations to gently compel Zuma to step down, more than a year from the end of his term. 

But if his eventual ouster speaks to South Africans’ deep frustrations, his staying power until now is equally telling. South Africa, after all, was a nation under white rule until just 25 years ago, where the president’s complicated history reminds many voters of their own.

Party future on the line

While no timeline was given for the resignation, Zuma made the extraordinary step Tuesday of agreeing to cancel the annual State of the Nation speech he was scheduled to deliver Thursday, signaling to many that he is preparing for his exit. In a press release Wednesday, meanwhile, Ramaphosa alluded to conversations he had with Zuma about “the transition” and promised a “speedy resolution of the matter in the interests of the country and its people.”

For the ANC itself, however, the decision to recall its own leader is a gamble with unprecedented odds.

The party, once part of the country’s liberation movement, has won every national election since the end of white rule. For many voters, it is synonymous with a democratic South Africa.

But in 2016 local government races, the ANC unexpectedly lost control of several major cities, including Johannesburg. That, coupled with the rise of powerful opposition parties from both the right and left, leaves the ANC facing its most uncertain national election yet next year.

And Ramaphosa, a union boss turned business mogul who helped lead the negotiations to end apartheid, is widely seen as the party’s best hope to right its course.

“He started a trade union, he’s educated, he appeals to white liberals, so he ticks a lot of boxes,” says Nomavenda Mathiane, a retired political journalist. “He offers hope to people who want to see the ANC return to its former glory.”

Controversial 'everyman'

But ousting Zuma also risks alienating many of his supporters, who have long viewed the president as a victim of the ANC’s political in-fighting, says Sithembile Mbete, a political science lecturer at the University of Pretoria.

“He is incredibly charismatic and appeals to a certain notion of the South African ‘everyman,’ ” Ms. Mbete says. “People see in him someone, who like most South Africans of his generation, didn’t have the chance to be educated but still rose to political prominence against the odds, and that’s a powerful story.”

That feeling of being victimized, she notes, is also part of Zuma’s story, and it’s a narrative he has built into his appeal from the start. When Zuma was dismissed as vice president in 2005 over corruption accusations, and soon after put on trial for rape, he told supporters the charges were nothing more than an attempt to undermine his political career. During his rape trial, hundreds of supporters gathered outside the Johannesburg court burning pictures of his accuser and chanting death threats. Zuma was acquitted, and his accuser was later offered asylum in the Netherlands.

“This story of victimhood explains why even today he still has a great deal of power and pull,” Mbete says. “The reality in South Africa is that the majority of people in this country have been victimized for 400 years, so it’s easy and natural to see how they could support a man they also feel has been a victim.”

That, in turn, has helped the president outrun a number of massive scandals across the course of his presidency. For years, for instance, he dodged the charge that he had used government money on upgrades to his personal home. When asked why South African taxpayers paid for his swimming pool, Zuma coyly explained that it was a “fire pool” constructed as a safety measure. (The country’s powerful anti-corruption ombudsman, Thuli Madonsela, eventually compelled him to pay back a portion of the cost).

The scandal that eventually became his undoing was his long-standing connection to three Indian businessmen in South Africa: Atul, Ajay, and Rajesh Gupta. In recent years the brothers have been implicated in a long list of corrupt dealings with government, including allegedly arranging for the president to fire the country’s finance minister and replace him with someone sympathetic to their business interests.

In late 2016, Ms. Madonsela released a damning report detailing the Guptas’ interference with South Africa’s government, and accused Zuma of turning a blind eye.

'Things just started spiraling'

For many both within and outside the ANC, this was the final straw.

“People knew that the government had been captured, but this was irrefutable evidence,” Ms. Mathiane, the journalist, says. “Things just started spiraling.”

Calls from the country’s political opposition to unseat Zuma mounted. Last week, the Economic Freedom Fighters party successfully petitioned Parliament to schedule a vote of no confidence in the president in late February. If he lost that vote – a possibility, if some of the ANCs legislators voted against him – he would be forced to resign immediately.

Many speculate that the current negotiations between Zuma and the ANC’s top leadership are designed to offer him a more graceful exit.

But turning over a new leaf for the party won’t be as simple as deposing one leader for another, she says. Instead, it will rest on how many voters decide to retain a loyalty that for many transcends personalities or even policies.

For Beatrice Letlepe, a retired high school geography teacher in Johannesburg, that allegiance runs back to her childhood, when she watched her father slip out of their village one night to join the ANC in exile fighting apartheid. Today, she lives in a formerly white suburb of Johannesburg called Brixton, something in those days she never imagined would be possible.

“When I hear young people like my daughter complaining about the ANC, I tell them – you didn’t grow up under apartheid, you don’t remember what it was like then,” she says. “I still vote for the ANC because where we are now – they are the ones who fought for it. They placed us here.”

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