JOHANNESBURG – South Africans on Monday awaited an end to a period of political limbo in which President Jacob Zuma has remained in office despite calls for him to resign because of corruption allegations.
The uncertainty over the fate of the leader of one of Africa’s biggest economies, who appears politically damaged beyond repair, stirred speculation that Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa, Zuma’s expected successor, had been negotiating a deal with the president in exchange for his resignation.
Ramaphosa has said that a key committee of South Africa’s ruling ANC party planned to finalize “a transition to a new administration” at a meeting that began on Monday afternoon and stretched into the night, more than seven hours later. There was no word on why the discussions were taking so long.
Opposition leaders have denounced unconfirmed reports that Zuma previously asked for concessions in exchange for his resignation, saying he should be tried if corruption charges are brought against him and go to jail if found guilty.
Zuma’s public profile is diminished – he did not deliver the state of the nation address last week and canceled a scheduled appearance in Cape Town on Saturday. On Monday, though, the South African foreign ministry relayed his condolences on behalf of the government and the South African people to Russia after an airliner crashed there, killing all 71 people on board.
Zuma has been discredited by a series of scandals, although he denies wrongdoing. South Africa’s top court ruled that he violated the constitution following an investigation of multimillion-dollar upgrades to his private home that were paid by the state; a judicial commission is about to start a probe of alleged looting of state enterprises by Zuma’s associates; and prosecutors are expected to announce soon whether they will reinstate corruption charges tied to an arms deal two decades ago.
The national executive committee of the ruling African National Congress could call for the president’s resignation in the same way that it forced the resignation of President Thabo Mbeki a decade ago, setting the stage for Zuma’s ascent to the presidency in 2009.
The committee, with more than 80 elected members, can launch disciplinary proceedings against any member suspected of misconduct, whose broad definitions include “creating division” within the ruling African National Congress party and any “act which undermines the ANC’s effectiveness as an organization,” according to party rules.
But if Zuma is simply asked to resign and refuses to do so, the matter might end up in parliament for a possible motion of no confidence or even impeachment proceedings, highlighting disarray in the ruling party, which has led South Africa since the end of apartheid in 1994. An opposition-sponsored motion of no confidence has been scheduled for Feb. 22.
If the motion were held and a majority of legislators voted against Zuma, the entire Cabinet would also have to resign, dashing Ramaphosa’s hopes of a carefully managed transition. Impeachment would be more difficult, requiring approval from two-thirds of parliament’s members.
Ramaphosa said Sunday that he recognized South Africans want a resolution to the leadership crisis and that the ruling party committee would provide it. He called off a similar committee meeting last week to concentrate on confidential talks with Zuma about a power transition.
Ramaphosa is poised to become acting president if Zuma leaves office, and likely would be elected president in a parliamentary vote that must happen no more than 30 days after Zuma’s exit. The period from then until national elections in 2019 would not count as a term; South African presidents can hold office for a maximum of two terms.
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