JOHANNESBURG, Nov 23 – South Africa’s President Jacob Zuma is divisive, scandal-plagued and unpopular, but against the odds he looks likely to retain his position after an upcoming ANC conference chooses its leader.
In just under a month, the African National Congress holds a key conference to pick the party’s leadership for the next five years.
Such is the power of the ANC that whoever wins the nomination is almost certain to become the country’s next president after the 2014 polls.
But the nomination comes at the most turbulent phase of post-apartheid South Africa’s history to date.
A bout of deadly mining and farming labour unrest, credit ratings downgrades, a weakening rand and growing joblessness have rocked the nation.
Zuma has been criticised for his management throughout.
He came to power after falling out with his predecessor Thabo Mbeki and facing corruption charges.
Nonetheless he won the party’s leadership in 2007 and became the head of state in polls two years later.
His popularity has since been battered by Marikana labour unrest and anger over a lavish security upgrade of around $28 million to his private home which is being probed by watchdogs.
A vocal pro-change camp gunning for “anyone but Zuma” dubbed the ABZ has emerged.
Opponents, the expelled ANC youth leader Julius Malema chief among them, have in recent months openly campaigned for Zuma’s removal, and in support of his deputy Kgalema Motlanthe.
Yet despite the scandals and blunders, he looks set to be re-elected.
“At the stage it looks likely that Zuma will get enough votes to remain in his position,” said Adriaan Basson, author of newly published book “Zuma Exposed”.
The latest scandals over a splurge on his rural Nkandla resident has dented him badly, “but for the sake of continuity, it seems that the ANC will pick Zuma for another five years — tainted or not,” according to Basson.
Tom Cargill an expert on Africa at Chatham House also believes Zuma will be re-elected “and by a larger margin than many imagine.”
That is because Zuma can count on the votes of stalwart delegates from the populated and traditional ANC strongholds as well as the backing of Cosatu, a leading trades union congress with a strong local organisation.
Zuma will enjoy “unassailable” support in his home province of KwaZulu-Natal as well as the Free State, Mpumalanga and the Eastern Cape, according to political commentator Karima Brown.
The Nkandla accusations might hurt the ANC in the eyes of the general public ahead of the 2014 general elections but is “unlikely to sway the bulk of the (ANC) general membership whether or not to endorse him as a candidate for the second term,” said Brown.
If anything the scandals feed into the idea that he is a “victim, that there is a conspiracy and a smear campaign out against him.”
The opposition is battling to censure Zuma in what is seen by the one camp in the ANC as an attempt to influence the conference to take place in Mangaung, a central city popularly known by its Afrikaans name of Bloemfontein.
Zuma has the “determination and personality, to pull off an aggressive campaign, while Motlanthe “is far more timid and self-effacing as well as being an unknown on many issues,” said analysts at Japanese bank Nomura.
Yet some see the landscape as still too unclear to call.
Fiona Forde, author of biography “An Inconvenient Youth : Julius Malema and the ‘New’ ANC” said: “Until the secret vote is cast… a lot can change. There’s a lot going on.”
“Things are very tense and people are not making decisions as easy as they want. And this a very narrow race.”
Zuma’s re-election will likely bode ill for the continent’s powerhouse.
“Continuation of the status quo would involve further erosion of (South Africa’s) competitiveness and suppressed potential growth that would lead to downgrades,” said Nomura.