THE African National Congress (ANC) faces an unexpected hindrance as it prepares for this year’s local elections: President Jacob Zuma.
Mr Zuma’s six-year tenure has been marred by corruption scandals, controversial appointments and policy missteps that critics say have stifled growth and investment. In December, the former intelligence operative made his biggest blunder yet when he named little-known legislator David van Rooyen as finance minister, sending the rand and stock and bond markets into a tailspin before he rescinded the decision four days later. The currency has still not recovered.
Dissent over Mr Zuma’s stewardship of SA could result in support for the ANC plummeting by as much as 10 percentage points in the local government elections that were due to take place between May and August, NKC African Economics political analyst Gary van Staden said. The party, which marks its 104th anniversary on Friday, has won more than 60% of the vote in every election since coming to power under Nelson Mandela more than two decades ago.
"The ANC is facing a crisis of leadership," Mr van Staden said. "Even its own strategists expect it to be hammered. They are going to lose control over a number of local authorities."
ANC spokesman Zizi Kodwa declined to comment on whether the party expected to lose support as a result of Mr Zuma’s actions.
Public distrust in the president stands at a record 66%, up from 37% in 2011, and most South Africans believe he routinely ignores Parliament and the courts, according to an Afrobarometer poll of 2,400 people released in November. The survey did not gauge whether that dissatisfaction would dim the appeal of the ANC.
As it prepares to outline its priorities for the year at an anniversary rally in Rustenburg on Saturday, the ANC is still standing by Mr Zuma.
The party praised him for demonstrating "bold leadership" when he appointed Pravin Gordhan, who served as finance minister between 2009 and 2014, to replace Mr van Rooyen following a four-day market rout that drove the rand to a record low and caused the biggest ever jump in bond yields.
"The ability of the leadership to review their positions in the face of legitimate concerns of our people are the hallmarks of a listening, responsive and accountable organisation," the ANC said by e-mail.
Since taking office, Mr Zuma has been accused of squandering taxpayers’ money on a R246m upgrade of Nkandla and allowing the Gupta family to use an air force base to transport guests to a wedding in 2007. He denies any wrongdoing.
Mr Zuma presides over an economy that is growing at its slowest pace since 2009 and whose debt is threatened by a credit downgrade to junk status, while unemployment stands at 25.5%.
"How the ANC performs in the local government elections will very much determine the influence and the staying power of President Jacob Zuma," said Somadoda Fikeni, a political analyst at the University of SA (Unisa). "Should it not do well, certainly that will weaken him."
The latest controversy has come as the ANC faces the growing appeal of opposition parties, violent community protests over a lack of services and the start of a potentially bruising fight between Mr Zuma’s ex-wife, Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, and Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa over who will succeed Mr Zuma as ANC leader in 2017.
The ANC will be challenged in the municipal vote by the Democratic Alliance (DA), which won 22% of the vote in 2014 and aims to wrest control of the Tshwane municipality, Johannesburg and Port Elizabeth from the ANC.
Although the ANC would probably retain control of Johannesburg, it was vulnerable in other urban areas and could be forced into coalitions, said Anthony Butler, a politics professor at the University of Cape Town.
Its reputation had been badly damaged, Mr Fikeni said.
"I doubt the ANC would rejuvenate itself under Mr Zuma’s leadership," he said. "It doesn’t look like he has a plan or a strategy to deal with the challenges which are faced by the country or by the ANC. The issue of the finance minister seems to have been a tipping point."