President Jacob Zuma’s authority within the ruling African National Congress (ANC) has been further eroded in recent weeks. Mineral Resources Minister Mosebenzi Zwane – a former Zuma ally – in August announced an inquiry into South African banks in a move that was swiftly denounced by the presidency. Meanwhile, the reappointment of Zuma ally Dudu Myeni as head of national carrier South African Airways (SAA) was confirmed for only one year after Zuma insisted on her retaining the position despite claims of mismanagement.

The National Prosecuting Authority (NPA), under the leadership of Zuma ally Shaun Abrahams, on 11 October publicly announced a decision to charge Finance Minister Pravin Gordhan with fraud, and on 13 October served Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) leader and fierce Zuma critic Julius Malema with a summons for contravening the Riotous Assemblies Act.

The charges against Pravin Gordhan are most likely politically motivated. But this attempt to weaken his opponent will most likely backfire as the perception of Zuma placing self-interest above the nation’s economic well-being will intensify opposition. There are three main themes to watch in coming months:

  • Zuma is likely to become increasingly isolated in his cabinet. In addition to known critics, such as Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa and Gordhan, Zuma is likely to face growing dissent from previously neutral members of the executive, including Tourism Minister Derek Hanekom, Science and Technology Minister Naledi Pandor, and Basic Education Minister Angie Motshekga. Meanwhile, one time allies, including Zwane and Communications Minister Faith Muthambi are increasingly at odds with Zuma, and are likely to publicly undermine his authority.
  • Zuma will seek to assert his authority through compromised state institutions. This is most likely to be done through institutions that fall under the remit of the cabinet’s Justice, Crime Prevention and Security Cluster (JCPS) , such as the NPA. The JCPS comprises fierce Zuma loyalists, including State Security Minister David Mahlobo and Police Minister Nathi Nhleko, who are likely to use their influence over state resources and institutions to protect the president.
  • Nonetheless, the continued erosion of Zuma’s power base will increase the risk of an unscheduled change of government. Although Zuma is unlikely to be recalled ahead of the ANC’s 2017 elective conference, a decline in his support within the party could lead to his exit before the 2019 general elections. Zuma’s authority stems from his influence over the ANC’s National Executive Committee (NEC) and the JCPS, and his ability to maintain a patronage network by offering protection and rewards to officials in the party and government. However, a shift in cabinet allegiance is likely to be accompanied by sentiment turning against Zuma in the NEC. This will be driven both by the growing strength in the party of those opposed to his administration and by his increasing inability to sustain a loyal patronage network.

Outlook

Zuma will seek to remain in office until the 2017 ANC elective conference, when the new party president will be chosen. However, he is likely to face intense pressure to step down, and could well submit to this pressure in exchange for guarantees of protection from future charges being brought against him.