JOHANNESBURG, South Africa — Confronted by mounting criticism within his African National Congress party, South Africa's President Jacob Zuma came out swinging and appears to have succeeded in getting the party's rebellious factions to fall into line.
Just over a decade after Nelson Mandela stepped down as South Africa’s first democratic president, his ruling political party is becoming increasingly fractious, often appearing to be torn apart by ideological and personal feuds.
Zuma, who overthrew his predecessor Thabo Mbeki just three years ago, went into a key African National Congress policy conference this week under a cloud of criticism and doubt about his leadership from the political allies that helped bring him to power.
Zuma faced attacks by the outspoken ANC youth league, which questioned his polygamy and which pushed for nationalization of the country’s mines. On a different front, Zuma was cricitized by the labor union federation Cosatu over the recent far-reaching strike by public workers.
But as the week-long national general council in Durban winds down, Zuma appears to have held his opponents at bay, at least for now.
While Zuma is known for having a genial consensus-building style — which at times has made him seem indecisive and ineffectual — he struck an uncharacteristically tough tone in his opening address at the conference, slapping down the ANC youth league and rebuking those who had sought to challenge his leadership.
“We have no choice but to reintroduce revolutionary discipline — junior structures must respect senior structures of the ANC,” Zuma said.
Zuma tried to shut the door on the discussion of nationalization of mines, a fraught subject pushed relentlessly in recent months by the Youth League and its firebrand leader Julius Malema. Despite Zuma’s assertion that no new policies would be discussed at the conference, Malema managed to get nationalization backed by the ANC's economic transformation commission.
Zuma also said that “action must be taken” against those who lobby for a change in leadership.
“Mobilizing and lobbying for succession so early also gives the wrong impression that the ANC comprises groups of people who are preoccupied with fighting for influential positions to advance personal interests, instead of advancing the program of the organization,” he said.
The national general council, held every five years, is focused on reviewing the party’s policies, but behind the scenes it is a critical event for political maneuvering. At the last council in 2005, Zuma laid the groundwork for the ousting of Mbeki two years later.
Zuma has three years left in his term, but amid growing speculation that he might be a one-term leader, ANC officials are jousting for position ahead of the party’s elective conference in 2012, where the candidate for general elections in 2014 will be decided.
“Perceptions of Zuma have changed somewhat” as a result of his strongly worded speech, said political scientist Susan Booysen.
“I think even he might have been surprised by the effect of his stronger tone,” added Booysen, a professor in the Graduate School of Public and Development Management at Johannesburg’s University Of Witwatersrand.
“It is by no means a foregone conclusion that there will be a second term” for Zuma, she added, saying that Kgalema Motlanthe — who was caretaker president for seven months after the ANC fired Thabo Mbeki, and is seen as a stabilizing force by investors — could step in.
While support for Zuma from the South African public has declined, it still remains high. Public support for Zuma has dropped to 68 percent from 77 percent in the last six months, according to a recent survey by Johannesburg-based research company Ipsos Markinor.
Analysts wonder how much longer Zuma can continue striking a balance between the left-leaning economic policies of his alliance partners, which also include the South African Communist Party, and the ANC’s business-friendly, free-market approach.
While the South African government has reassured investors that mines will not be nationalized, there are growing calls within the ANC and its alliance partners to nationalize some sectors of the economy, amid a frustration over continuing inequality and poverty in the country.
Cosatu general secretary Zwelinzima Vavi has spoken out against corruption in the ANC and against politicians using their positions to land business deals, warning that South Africa was becoming a “predatory state” led by politically connected businesspeople.
Daniel Silke, an independent political analyst, says that while Zuma’s strong tone and emphasis on party discipline will temporarily “stave off some of the infighting that has plagued the ANC since he became president,” the underlying divisions will re-emerge when it comes time to re-elect Zuma as ANC leader or choose an alternative in 2012.
“Zuma is going to have to preside over some very important economic decisions that potentially can anger some of his alliance partners. So he needs to come across as a much stronger individual right now,” Silke said.
“Zuma is a vulnerable president, but at the same time it certainly looks as though the ANC is going to take a more centrist approach to policy making, and Zuma may well surprise us all by delivering a much more sturdy, robust presidency in the latter part of his first term in office than we saw in the first 18 months.”