JOHANNESBURG — The chairman of South Africa’s ruling party on Saturday tried to ease national anxiety about President Jacob Zuma’s fate, saying the country should be patient and wait for a conclusion to private talks with the embattled leader about his possible resignation.
Zuma is under heavy pressure to quit because of corruption scandals and has been engaged in days of confidential negotiations about a power transition with Cyril Ramaphosa, his deputy and expected successor.
Gwede Mantashe, national chairman of the African National Congress, said at a party rally that Ramaphosa should be given a chance to finish the discussions, which are coming under criticism from some who suspect the president is angling for concessions.
“Allow him to lead,” Mantashe said of Ramaphosa, who on Wednesday said he anticipated a “speedy resolution” to his talks with Zuma. Still, the delay and lack of clarity is frustrating opposition leaders who have described the process as backroom dealing that plays into the president’s hands and is an affront to democratic principles.
Ramaphosa is scheduled to deliver a major speech on Sunday, the 28th anniversary of Nelson Mandela’s release from prison. Jailed for 27 years, the anti-apartheid leader addressed a crowd in Cape Town on Feb. 11, 1990 and was elected as South Africa’s first black president four years later. He died in 2013 at the age of 95.
Mantashe said the ruling party must reverse a decline in popularity that has gone on for more than a decade, sullying the moral standing it enjoyed when Mandela was its leader.
Scandals linked to Zuma have played a major role in sapping support for the ANC, which has led South Africa since the end of white minority rule in 1994. Backing peaked in 2004 with nearly 70 per cent of the national vote but declined to 62 per cent in 2014. The party lost control of several key municipalities in 2016 elections.
Many in the ANC want to avoid having to form a coalition government for the first time. The next presidential elections are in 2019.
“We have responsibility to find a new growth strategy,” Mantashe said. “If we lose that opportunity, comrades, we’ll never grab it again.”
Zuma’s tenure as president, which began in 2009, has been marred by questions about his conduct. The country’s top court said he violated the constitution in a scandal over multi-million-dollar upgrades to his private home. A judicial commission is about to investigate the alleged looting of state enterprises by his associates and could scrutinize his actions.
The president, who says he has done nothing wrong, also could face the reinstatement of corruption charges tied to an arms deal two decades ago.
“Zuma does not want to go and he does not want to face criminal charges,” said William Gumede, chairman of the Democracy Works foundation. “Zuma is looking for some kind of immunity, which is not possible under South African law.”
While Ramaphosa’s negotiating space is limited, the deputy president could promise that the state would pay for Zuma’s legal expenses or he could promise a presidential pardon if Zuma is convicted, Gumede said.
The South African Communist Party, a traditional ally of the ANC, said there should be no amnesty for Zuma after his expected removal from office.
“If he has done something wrong, he should account for it,” said Solly Mapaila, a party leader. Ramaphosa has said anyone involved in wrongdoing, regardless of who they are, should be punished.