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S. African party seen as weakened

Scandals eat at influence of Mandela’s party, experts say

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Photographs by AP/MARK WESSELS

African National Congress supporters celebrated Tuesday outside parliament in Cape Town, South Africa, after President Jacob Zuma survived a no-confidence vote.

JOHANNESBURG -- Although South African President Jacob Zuma escaped a no-confidence vote this week, allegations of corruption and poor governance have significantly weakened his African National Congress party, the once-potent organization of Nelson Mandela, observers say.

The party, which was instrumental in ending South Africa's apartheid regime of racial discrimination, has ruled since the country's first all-race elections in 1994. But its support has eroded since Zuma came to power in 2009, as South Africans have vented their frustration at the ballot box over high unemployment and a lack of basic services such as water and electricity.

In fact, more than 25 African National Congress members supported the opposition's move this week to vote out Zuma, or didn't show up to vote. Of the 384 votes cast in a secret ballot, 177 were in favor of unseating Zuma and 198 were against, with nine abstentions.

That public display of rebellion also highlights the party's bruising battle to succeed Zuma, who will step down as party leader in December. A steady stream of African National Congress members and anti-apartheid veterans have publicly urged Zuma to step aside before then as anger grows among voters over scandals that included millions of dollars of public money spent on Zuma's private home.

In the coming months, courts are set to hear a bid by the opposition Economic Freedom Fighters party to impeach him, as well as Zuma's own appeal to drop nearly 800 charges of alleged corruption, racketeering and fraud against him.

The developments have chipped away at the party's decades-old moral authority, while "pro" and "anti" Zuma factions in the party fight for control and prepare for the 2019 national elections.

"The [African National Congress party] works on the assumption it can pull together a credible campaign in the future, and that the core of the [party] is still there," said Susan Booysen, a professor of politics at the University of the Witwatersrand.

That's not a certainty, she said. "The [party] is really, really in a deep crisis."

The party's vote share dropped from nearly 70 percent in the 2004 national elections to just over 62 percent in 2014. The party had its worst-ever showing in the August 2016 local elections, losing control for the first time of the commercial hub of Johannesburg, capital Pretoria and Port Elizabeth.

That prompted party leaders to declare they would "introspect" to understand why voters are turning their backs on the party. In the parliament debate before this week's no-confidence vote, at least one young member warned that South Africa's coming generation of voters would look elsewhere.

Instead of pursuing overhauls, the party has been embroiled in the Zuma administration's challenges. Those include growing accusations that Zuma and his allies have granted political favors to a wealthy family of Indian immigrants, the Guptas, while Zuma's related decision to fire his respected finance minister in March prompted two major ratings agencies to downgrade the country's credit rating to junk. The Guptas have denied any wrongdoing.

"The [African National Congress] has done nothing since the last local elections to help themselves," said Daniel Silke, director of the Political Futures Consultancy in Cape Town. "In fact, their position has deteriorated substantially. They've gone backwards since 2016."

Opposition parties have capitalized on that slide, seeking to put the African National Congress' deepening fractures in the national spotlight through moves like the no-confidence motion.

On Thursday, the Democratic Alliance, the main opposition party that initiated the no-confidence motion, submitted a fresh motion to dissolve parliament. The passage of the motion would force early elections. Given African National Congress' majority in the house, the measure is likely to fail, but it provides the opposition with another chance to build its case that the party has lost touch with voters.

The African National Congress can still rely on substantial support, particularly in South Africa's rural areas, and cannot be counted out.

"The [African National Congress] remains a powerful brand," Silke said. Though the opposition has gained, no party appears strong enough to unseat it, he said. However, "the [party members] can damage themselves."

A Section on 08/12/2017

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