JOHANNESBURG — South Africans were on tenterhooks on Wednesday as their scandal-tainted President Jacob Zuma was expected to respond to his party’s decision to "recall" him from office in an atmosphere of growing political turmoil.
The embattled president, who could be ousted in a parliamentary vote of no-confidence if he clings to office, has "agreed in principle to resign", the secretary-general of the ruling African National Congress (ANC), Ace Magashule, said on Tuesday.
A cabinet meeting scheduled for Wednesday was postponed indefinitely, the government said in a statement, effectively clearing Zuma’s diary for the day.
The power struggle over Zuma’s departure has put him at loggerheads with deputy president Cyril Ramaphosa, his expected successor, who is the new head of the party.
Magashule told reporters that the party rejected Zuma’s proposal to step down in three to six months.
"Recalling" the head of state is a party-level instruction that the 75-year-old Zuma is under no constitutional obligation to obey.
Magashule said the decision "was taken only after exhaustive discussion on the impact such a recall would have on the country".
He added that no date has been set for Zuma to step aside, and that there would be "continuing interaction" between ANC officials and the president.
The ANC’s national executive committee reached the decision after meeting for 13 hours at a hotel outside Pretoria.
A committee member confirmed to AFP that the president had asked for three more months in office, describing the request as "hogwash".
’He is an angry person’
Local media reported that Zuma was pushing for an exit deal that included covering his potentially ruinous legal fees from prolonged court battles against multiple criminal charges.
One case relates to 783 payments he allegedly received linked to an arms deal before he came to power.
He is also reportedly seeking legal protection for his family and other associates involved in controversial deals.
Susan Booysen, a political science professor at Stellenbosch University, said she expected that Zuma would resign -- albeit grudgingly.
"It will (not) be a pretty resignation -- I think that he is an angry person... and he is very reluctant to go. His power could still hover in the background," Booysen said.
"It is still to be seen whether the president actually will tender his resignation (Wednesday) evening, roughly when the deadline expires... (but) it seems that they are expecting that it will be happening."
The impasse has plunged South Africa -- the continent’s most developed economy -- into confusion over who is running the country, with national events cancelled last week including the annual State of the Nation Address to parliament.
South African opposition parties have called for early elections as the ANC’s slow-motion transfer of power to the 65-year-old Ramaphosa grinds on.
History repeating itself?
An opposition request for a no-confidence vote against Zuma this week was still being considered by the parliament speaker.
Zuma’s presidency has been marred by corruption scandals, slow economic growth and record unemployment that have fuelled public anger.
He was scheduled to stand down next year after serving the maximum two terms since coming to power in 2009.
In 2008, Zuma’s supporters pushed out then-president Thabo Mbeki via a similar "recall" manoeuvre over allegations of abuse of power.
In local polls in 2016, the ANC recorded its worst electoral result since coming to power in 1994 with Nelson Mandela at the helm as white-minority rule fell.
Ramaphosa, the deputy president, must revive the economy and crack down on what he has admitted is rampant government corruption if he is to boost the party’s tarnished reputation before a tricky election next year.
He is a former trade unionist and Mandela ally who led talks to end apartheid in the early 1990s and then became a multi-millionaire businessman before returning to politics.
Zuma’s hold over the ANC was shaken in December when his chosen successor -- his former wife Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma -- narrowly lost to Ramaphosa in a vote to be the new party leader.
The ANC has insisted there will be no delay to the budget speech, which is due on February 21. — AFP