JOHANNESBURG, South Africa — If President Jacob Zuma had been at the headquarters of the ruling African National Congress party in Johannesburg this week, he would have seen an astonishing sight.
Members of his party’s own Youth League, which had helped bring him to power, were baying for his blood.
“Zuma, you are a rapist,” sang some of the hundreds of young men and women that gathered outside the ANC’s Luthuli House headquarters, referring to the president’s 2006 rape trial. Others set fire to T-shirts bearing Zuma’s image, threw rocks at police and journalists, and chanted “Zuma must go!”
Midway through his first term as South Africa's head of state, Zuma is fighting for his political life in an increasingly fractious party. Political analysts are raising the possibility of a one-term presidency and some of Zuma’s fiercest opposition comes from within the ANC Youth League and in particular its controversy-loving young leader, Julius Malema, first an ally and now a potent enemy.
Just three years ago, Malema had said he would kill for Jacob Zuma. The Youth League’s 350,000-strong block of voters gave crucial support to lift Zuma to the ANC presidency, ousting Thabo Mbeki and then displacing him as South Africa’s president.
Malema has since drawn near-constant headlines in the South African media for his inflammatory statements about nationalization of mines and a range of other sensitive topics. He was slapped down by the ANC last year, but after months of mounting rhetoric against Zuma himself, the president decided that enough was enough.
Malema, 30, has now been hauled before an ANC disciplinary committee, and the raucous scenes outside Luthuli House this week were in his defense. He faces charges of bringing the ANC into disrepute by calling for regime change in Botswana, South Africa’s democratic neighbor to the north, and by insulting Zuma.
Separately, Malema is facing a fraud and corruption investigation by South African police.
If Malema is expelled from the ANC — a possible outcome of the disciplinary hearings — then Zuma will undoubtedly lose the significant support of the Youth League. If Malema somehow goes unpunished through the help of political allies, then Zuma’s standing in the party will have effectively been destroyed by a cocky young upstart.
Regardless of the disciplinary hearing’s outcome, “I doubt very much that Zuma can look good coming out of it,” said Susan Booysen, a politics professor at Johannesburg’s University of the Witswatersrand and the author of a book on the ANC to be published next month.
“In making the ANC appear weak in comparison to the Youth League, I don’t see how you can argue that he has been good for the party,” Booysen said.
“Whether Malema goes or not, Zuma will be slightly reduced in influence, and in the esteem of the party,” said Tinyiko Sam Maluleke, a professor at the University of South Africa in Pretoria.
“It will be very difficult for him to get a second term,” Maluleke said.
Zuma’s problems are far more than just Malema. Another raging controversy is his choice of new chief justice for the country’s highest court, a selection currently under review by a judiciary committee.
Zuma has been roundly slated for nominating Mogoeng Mogoeng, an inexperienced judge who has a track record of minimizing violence against women and child rape, and is a member of a church that claims to cure "deviations" such as homosexuality.
Zuma is also facing criticism over his friend the national police chief’s dodgy property deals.
And abroad, Zuma's attempts at foreign policy have been flops with disappointments on Zimbabwe, Ivory Coast and now Libya, with a string of failed efforts at brokering “inclusive” political solutions that prop up dictators.
The president’s personal life has also been attacked throughout his first term, with taxpayers angry at having to pay for the polygamous Zuma’s super-sized brood of children, including the ones fathered in extramarital affairs.
Zuma was elected in 2009 after deposing then-South African president Thabo Mbeki in a nasty internal coup, and if he manages to hang on through the party’s 2012 elective conference in Mangaung for a second term, the same fate could befall him, some analysts say.
“Zuma came into the presidency controversially, and that monkey has never left his shoulders,” said Maluleke.
Booysen said the party has been substantially weakened by its many factions battling internally for control, including the ANC Youth League and other political alliance partners such as the South African Communist Party and the unions.
Booysen concluded: “The ANC is off course – not just Zuma.”