President Zuma’s Speech Postponed as South African Power Struggle Intensifies
Posted February 6, 2018 11:10 p.m. EST
Updated February 6, 2018 11:12 p.m. EST
JOHANNESBURG — President Jacob Zuma of South Africa on Tuesday held direct talks for the first time with Cyril Ramaphosa, the politician who has been trying to force him to step down as the nation’s leader, suggesting that details were being worked out for a transfer of power.
On Tuesday night, the governing African National Congress abruptly canceled a meeting at which the party’s top decision-making body had been expected to discuss Zuma’s future as president on Wednesday.
Ace Magashule, the party’s secretary-general, told local news media that the meeting had been canceled after “constructive discussions” between Zuma and Ramaphosa, who was elected leader of the governing African National Congress party in December. The meeting’s cancellation, as well as the postponement of a state of the nation address that Zuma had been scheduled to deliver on Thursday, would give them a “further chance to talk,” Magashule said.
The direct talks signaled a possible turn of events in the power struggle between Zuma and Ramaphosa. With Zuma’s term ending in mid-2019, the two men and their allies, representing two centers of power, have been clashing over when Zuma should step down to give way to Ramaphosa.
The party split had intensified in recent days ahead of the state of the nation address. Ramaphosa’s supporters had been pressing Zuma, whose corruption-tainted presidency has driven voters away from the ANC, to resign before the address. Instead, they said that it should be delivered by Ramaphosa, to establish the government’s future priorities and to signal a fresh start for the nation.
Every year since the end of apartheid in 1994, South Africa’s annual state of the nation address has been given by the president in Parliament. But on Tuesday, two days before this year’s address, parliamentary leaders abruptly announced that it would be postponed.
“We believe it is in the best interest of Parliament, and in the best interest of our country, for us to give time for whatever political matters that need to be resolved,” Jackson Mthembu, chief whip of the ANC and a Ramaphosa ally, said of the postponement.
It was not clear when the address would take place. Or whether the embattled Zuma would deliver it. Or who might do so if he were to resign unexpectedly.
At a news conference earlier Tuesday, party leaders had said that they hoped to break the deadlock between the two factions at a meeting of the national executive committee on Wednesday. The meeting had been hastily scheduled after party leaders had failed to come to a resolution in meetings earlier in the week.
“Let the NEC provide us with a decision,” Jessie Duarte, the deputy secretary-general and a longtime Zuma ally, said, referring to the committee. “Up to this point, there has been no decision.”
Zuma, a survivor who has defied political gravity for years, had told supporters that it was his right to give the speech, though on Tuesday his office said that he had agreed to the postponement. According to the news media, he has given no indication of stepping down, saying that the “people still love him.”
In South Africa, the president is appointed by Parliament, which is dominated by the ANC. If the party’s executive committee turns against Zuma, he would most likely resign, or face a humiliating fate in Parliament.
The annual address has produced dramatic political theater in recent years. While ANC lawmakers have visibly supported Zuma during past speeches, opposition lawmakers have used what amounts to the president’s most important speech of the year to humiliate him.
The Economic Freedom Fighters, the nation’s second largest opposition party, whose members dress in red overalls, have delayed the start of Zuma’s previous speeches, heckled him and demanded his resignation before walking out en masse. Should Zuma deliver the address, the Economic Freedom Fighters have promised similar actions.
But an address by Zuma would leave some ANC lawmakers in a difficult situation — whether to visibly support him, adopt a critical pose, remain neutral or even boycott the address.
The Economic Freedom Fighters and other opposition parties are also pushing for Zuma’s resignation. A motion of no-confidence called by the Economic Freedom Fighters has been scheduled for a vote in Parliament on Feb. 22.
That, too, would put ANC lawmakers critical of Zuma in a difficult situation. The party has helped Zuma survive previous opposition-led votes of no confidence. While many members of the governing party want Zuma to step down, some have said that they do not want the opposition to lead the effort.
Ramaphosa, who has been nudging Zuma to resign without deepening the party split, has said that Zuma should not be humiliated. His supporters say that reflects Ramaphosa’s skillful negotiating style and his view of the big picture.
But others interpret Ramaphosa’s attitude as a sign of weakness. Julius Malema, the leader of the Economic Freedom Fighters, said in a television interview that Ramaphosa was “a coward” and that the ANC was paralyzed.