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Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 24 June 2018

South Africa postpones State of the Nation address amid political crisis

The ruling ANC party is grappling over the future of president Jacob Zuma

President Jacob Zuma leaves Tuynhuys, the office of the Presidency at parliament after the announcement that his State of the Nation address had been postponed in Cape Town, South Africa, February 6, 2018. REUTERS/Sumaya Hisham
President Jacob Zuma leaves Tuynhuys, the office of the Presidency at parliament after the announcement that his State of the Nation address had been postponed in Cape Town, South Africa, February 6, 2018. REUTERS/Sumaya Hisham

South Africa on Tuesday postponed its State of the Nation address, the keynote political event of the year, as the ruling ANC party grappled over the future of president Jacob Zuma.

Mr Zuma, in power since 2009, is fighting for survival. He faces the imminent risk of being ousted from office by his own party after multiple graft scandals.

The African National Congress (ANC), which has ruled since Nelson Mandela won the post-apartheid 1994 election, is divided over whether Mr Zuma should be "recalled" from his position.

As president, Mr Zuma had been due to deliver the State of the Nation address to parliament in Cape Town on Thursday — a closely-watched event that shapes the political agenda for the coming year.

But the party's national executive committee, its highest decision-making body, will hold a special meeting on Wednesday to discuss his possible removal.

"We thought that we needed to create room for establishing a much more conducive political atmosphere in parliament," said parliamentary speaker Baleka Mbete.

"A new date for the State of the Nation address will be announced very soon."

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The ANC executive committee meeting on Wednesday may "recall" Mr Zuma from office.

He is constitutionally entitled to refuse to obey the instruction, but to do so would trigger political chaos, say commentators.

The ANC's deputy secretary-general, Jessie Duarte, said senior party officials had discussed Mr Zuma's future on Monday.

"It was discussed at a great deal of length. I can say to you that there are different views," she said.

Many ANC members are pushing for Cyril Ramaphosa, the new head of the party, to replace Mr Zuma, 75, as president immediately.

But Zuma loyalists have said that the serving president should complete his second and final term in office, which would end when elections are held next year.

Ms Duarte confirmed that if Mr Zuma resigned, the deputy president, Mr Ramaphosa, would automatically take office.

"What we are hoping for is that the NEC (national executive committee) will emerge with a united view on this matter," she said.

The power struggle has rocked the ANC, the much-celebrated liberation party which led the fight against white-minority rule but has since lost much of its public support.

"Jacob Zuma is not just a pushover," said Xolani Dube, an analyst with the Xubera think-tank in Durban.

"He is not someone who respects Ramaphosa because Ramaphosa has not gone through all the rituals to become an ANC president … he was not in prison, he was not in exile."

Mr Zuma faces several court cases, including over 783 payments he received that were allegedly linked to an arms deal before he came to power in 2009.

Many corruption allegations against him have centred on the wealthy Gupta family, who are accused of unfairly obtaining lucrative government contracts and even being able to choose ministerial appointments.

The Nelson Mandela Foundation, which promotes the legacy of South Africa's anti-apartheid icon, called for Mr Zuma to be ousted as he had "demonstrated that he is not fit to govern".

In a damning statement, it said there was "overwhelming evidence that systematic looting by patronage networks linked to president Zuma have betrayed the country Nelson Mandela dreamed of".

Previous State of Nation addresses by Mr Zuma have seen an outpouring of anger by his critics. Opposition lawmakers have shouted him down or been ejected from the chamber by security guards in a melee of flying fists.

Mr Zuma could leave office either by resigning, through losing a vote of no-confidence in parliament or impeachment proceedings.

He could also be "recalled" by the ANC — as happened to his predecessor, Thabo Mbeki, in 2008 — but a recall is a party process rather than a constitutional order.

And despite the attacks on him, Mr Zuma still enjoys support within the party, particularly among rural members and within his own Zulu community.

"If he doesn't resign following a recall then it will be a very chaotic situation," said Ben Payton, an analyst for the London-based Maplecroft consultancy.

"Ramaphosa will look weak if he can't get Zuma out now. He won't be able to back down now without losing face."

John Steenhuisen, chief whip of the opposition Democratic Alliance party, welcomed the postponement but said any delay to the budget on February 21 would be financially damaging to the country.

Mr Ramaphosa, 65, is a former trade unionist who led talks to end apartheid rule in the early 1990s and then became a multimillionaire businessman before returning to politics.