South Africa’s ruling party is today voting for a new leader to replace scandal-prone President Jacob Zuma, as it seeks to restore the legacy of the liberation movement founded by Nelson Mandela.
As thousands of delegates of the African National Congress gathered, their were emotional calls for unity in the face of tensions that threaten to split the party that took power in 1994 at the end of white minority rule.
“Anything divisive, comrades, will not be allowed in this conference,” chair of the African National Congress Baleka Mbete told those in attendance.
Mired in scandal and corruption allegations during Mr Zuma’s two presidential terms, the reputation of the liberation movement, which celebrated its 105th anniversary this year, has taken a beating.
The growing frustration around Mr Zuma led the party to suffer its worst-ever performance in municipal elections in 2016, with its vote share falling below 60 per cent for the first time.
Seven candidates are in the running for the position that will most likely lead to presidency after the 2019 elections.
The two clear frontrunners are Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa and Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, former chair of the African Union Commission and Mr Zuma’s ex-wife.
Mr Ramaphosa, who helped negotiate an end to apartheid and has become one of the wealthiest men in a democratic South Africa, has pledged to crack down on corruption and get the economy back on track.
Ms Dlamini-Zuma, a doctor, former government minister and ally of Mr Zuma, has promised to bring more black South Africans into the fold through “radical economic transformation”.
Some South Africans worry that Ms Dlamini-Zuma would be influenced by her ex-husband and perhaps shelter him from prosecution.
Others were excited by the idea of her taking charge.
“Now I want a woman president,” said Lerato Godi, a delegate from North West province.
Observers say the party needs to restore its reputation or it could be forced into a governing coalition for the first time.
Party divisions run so deep that analysts say either outcome, Mr Ramaphosa or Ms Dlamini-Zuma, could mean the end of the ANC’s dominance as members of the losing faction could form a new party.
“Anyone who wins we are going to support and rally behind,” said Sasekani Manzini, a spokeswoman for the ANC in Mpumalanga province.
She said she supports Ms Dlamini-Zuma but “we want to see a united ANC”.
Zuma urges unity as ANC conference begins
Mr Zuma could carry on as head of state until 2019, when his term ends, or he could step down or be ousted before then by the new party leader ahead of the general elections.
Under Mr Zuma, unemployment rose to nearly 30 per cent and economic growth slumped.
More than 55 per cent of the country lives below the poverty line.
In his speech to the delegates, Mr Zuma said the party was facing “enormous challenges” as he urges delegates to remain united.
He pushed back against allegations of corruption, asserting that “theft and corruption” in the private sector is just as bad as in government and that “being black and successful is being made synonymous to being corrupt”.
But Mr Zuma said “greed is posing a serious threat” to the party and warned that the ANC could “implode”.
The President defended the party’s worth despite the challenges, saying it continues to stand for millions of people on the fringes of society.
“A heavy responsibility lies upon the shoulders of delegates here … to renew our movement and to restore its timeless values,” he said.
He lashed out at the media, the judiciary and civil society, accusing them of fighting the ANC or interfering in party matters.