Johannesburg (AFP) – South Africa’s ruling ANC party on Tuesday “recalled” scandal-tainted President Jacob Zuma from office but set no deadline for him to step down, pitching the country into further uncertainty.
ANC secretary-general Ace Magashule told reporters that Zuma had “agreed in principle to resign” and had proposed leaving in three to six months — a delay that the party rejected.
Magashule said there was no date for Zuma to stand down, and added that there would be “continuing interaction” between ANC officials and Zuma.
“The NEC (National Executive Committee) decided… to recall its deployee Jacob Zuma,” Magashule told reporters, saying the move “was taken only after exhaustive discussion on the impact such a recall would have on the country”.
The ANC party can “recall” the head of state, but the process is a party-level instruction and Zuma is under no constitutional obligation to obey.
Zuma is expected to respond to the recall on Wednesday, and could be ousted in a parliamentary vote of no-confidence if he clings to office.
The power struggle over Zuma’s departure has put him at loggerheads with Cyril Ramaphosa, his expected successor, who is the new head of the African National Congress.
– Who’s in charge? –
The ANC’s leadership committee met for 13 hours at a hotel outside Pretoria, and decided in the early hours of Tuesday to “recall” Zuma from his post.
A committee member confirmed to AFP that the president had asked for three more months in office, and described the request as “hogwash”.
“We just felt he meant three months of looting,” the member said, speaking on condition of anonymity.
Local media reported that Zuma was pushing for an exit deal that included covering his potentially ruinous legal fees from prolonged court battles against multiple criminal charges.
One case relates to 783 payments he allegedly received linked to an arms deal before he came to power.
He is also reportedly seeking legal protection for his family and other associates involved in controversial deals.
Ben Payton of the London-based Maplecroft risk consultancy said the recall was “a political death sentence” for the president.
“If Ramaphosa had agreed to help protect Zuma from prosecution in any way, his leadership would have been tainted — perhaps fatally,” he added.
The impasse has plunged South Africa — the continent’s most developed economy — into confusion over who is running the country, with national events cancelled last week including the annual State of the Nation Address to parliament.
“We know you want this matter to be finalised,” Ramaphosa, 65, told a party rally in Cape Town on Sunday.
“We know you want closure… Because our people want this matter to be finalised, the NEC will be doing precisely that.”
South African opposition parties have called for early elections as the ANC’s slow-motion transfer of power to Ramaphosa grinds on.
An opposition request for a no-confidence vote against Zuma, 75, this week was still being considered by the parliamentary speaker.
Zuma’s presidency has been marred by corruption scandals, slow economic growth and record unemployment that have fuelled public anger.
He was scheduled to stand down next year after serving the maximum two terms after coming to power in 2009.
– Mandela’s party –
In 2008, Zuma’s supporters pushed out then-president Thabo Mbeki via a similar “recall” over allegations of abuse of power.
In local polls in 2016, the ANC recorded its worst electoral result since coming to power in 1994 with Nelson Mandela at the helm as white-minority rule fell.
Ramaphosa, the deputy president, must revive the economy and crack down on what he has admitted is rampant government corruption if he is to boost the party’s tarnished reputation before a tricky election next year.
He is a former trade unionist and Mandela ally who led talks to end apartheid in the early 1990s and then became a multi-millionaire businessman before returning to politics.
Zuma’s hold over the ANC was shaken in December when his chosen successor — his former wife Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma — narrowly lost to Ramaphosa in a vote to be the new party leader.
The ANC has insisted there will be no delay to the budget speech, which is due on February 21.