Can Dlamini-Zuma win South Africa’s leadership race?

As Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma launches her candidacy for the presidency, her former husband could prove more of a liability than an asset.


Surrounded by cloud-capped peaks and verdant fields, Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma’s tiny hometown offered a comfortingly familiar location in which to kickstart her campaign for the South African presidency.

In mid-May, senior ANC figures rubbed shoulders with locals in Bulwer’s St Catherine’s Church as President Jacob Zuma publically endorsed his former wife for the first time. While the endorsement amounted to little more than a confirmation of one of the worst kept secrets in South African politics, the choice of their home province was freighted with deeper significance. From the coastal city of Durban to the inland communities of the Midlands, the ANC kingpins of South Africa’s easternmost province could prove crucial in Dlamini-Zuma’s battle with deputy-president Cyril Ramaphosa for the party nomination. 

And while the race there could yet decide the outcome of the nomination, it may also provide further hints about the modus operandi of a politician who remains inextricably tied to the president and whose personal ideology, motivations and competencies remain a source of intense speculation.

“The question is whether she can rely on her liberation credentials, whether she has enough support in Kwa-Zulu Natal to dominate that province, and whether the disparate groups that do support her really can muster enough support at the elective conference to outnumber Ramaphosa’s groupings. The jury is out,” says Daniel Silke, director of the Political Futures Consultancy.

The battle for Kwa-Zulu Natal’s delegates is one that the 68-year-old Dlamini-Zuma is taking increasingly seriously. At the last elective conference in 2012, the region was granted 974 delegates, almost 300 more than the next province.

Since returning from her role as chair of the African Union Commission, Dlamini-Zuma has tapped into Jacob Zuma’s extensive political network, launching a charm offensive aimed at wooing the ANC’s powerful regional bosses and influential national structures. That diplomatic push has yielded valuable endorsements from the ANC Youth League, Women’s League, and Military Veterans Association, all of whom command significant influence over the branch delegates who decide the nomination. 

“For any candidate it comes down to the members of the branches. Usually the connecting point between the candidates and the branches is the Youth League… if you have a good relationship with the Youth League you are likely to have good relations with the branches and delegations – usually candidates endorsed by the League win,” says analyst Ralph Mathekga.

Dependence on the president

While a measure of credibility acquired running the African Union undoubtedly played a part in smoothing the path to endorsement, analysts believe that the patronage networks crafted over eight years of Jacob Zuma’s presidency are principally responsible for driving support Dlamini-Zuma’s way.

Without a formal government role, Dlamini-Zuma has appeared at major ANC events, turning party functions into unofficial campaign stops where alliances can be sealed, publicity commanded and votes gathered. Particular controversy has focused on her use of the Presidential Protection Service, a murkily budgeted unit intended for Jacob Zuma. Few believe that his covert influence is likely to end any time soon.

“There is something very interesting and peculiar about this campaign, because she doesn’t occupy any position in government at this point. But she has the whole presidential security around her so she can already appear presidential. Going to key functions and being invited by premiers – that allows her to campaign without campaigning,” says Mathekga.

Yet an overt dependence on the president could prove a double-edged sword. In an increasingly divided ANC, factions who have fallen prey to the president’s disfavour are likely to reject Dlamini-Zuma. This is particularly so in the case of the ANC’s powerful trade union allies, who have long been at loggerheads with the party leadership.

 Last November, the Congress of South African Trade Unions endorsed their former leader Cyril Ramaphosa, and while his history in the union movement undoubtedly played a role, the union’s publically displayed contempt for the president is also likely to have ended Dlamini-Zuma’s chances.

“If she wants to secure the presidency she’d need to at least make overtures towards the trade union movement which I haven’t seen at all. She’s stuck with the more ‘radical’ or populist wings of the ANC… beyond that she seems unable to break out of what increasingly looks like a narrow support base,” says Silke.

Her reliance on Zuma’s allies hints at a deeper problem – few are aware where the president’s influence ends and hers begins. Her inglorious stint at the African Union, largely defined by institutional drift amid criticism of her aloofness, did little to enhance a moderate reputation.

Without a unique political brand, she appears reliant on the slogans of a waning government. In recent months, she has echoed calls for “radical economic transformation”, an undefined programme traditionally encompassing wealth redistribution and the reform of land and mining. While the ANC’s June policy conference may give her the chance to flesh out some details, few are convinced that a malleable insider who served under both Thabo Mbeki and Jacob Zuma is a genuine radical. 

“She’s been speaking that kind of language, but she’s been given a script and almost read it out. She’s not been known for those ideas before, and if you look at statements from years back you will never see anything radical about her,” says Mathekga.

Zuma is a tarnished brand

Dlamini-Zuma’s closeness to the president could also prove increasingly costly as political and personal scandals dog the end of his term. Mired in allegations of “state capture” – a form of political corruption involving the influencing of state decisions by private individuals – over his links with the Guptas, an Indian business family, and blamed for economic instability following the sacking of respected finance minister Pravin Gordhan, the president is proving a tarnished brand.

 Last month’s reinstatement of Jacob Zuma’s ally Brian Molefe as chief executive of Eskom has again plunged the party into a bout of infighting after he was named in the public protector’s report into state capture. A continuity ticket with an increasingly discredited president is unlikely to serve Dlamini-Zuma well at the ballot box, even if she is able to use his connections to secure the party nomination. As the campaign continues and Kwa-Zulu Natal’s delegates weigh up their support, her patron is proving an enduring liability. 

“She’s clearly identified as pro-Zuma and you don’t know how the current machinations with the president will play out,” says Tony Leon, former leader of the opposition Democratic Alliance. This Brian Molefe thing could blow up, and there will be a constitutional court judgment at some stage about the reinstatement of corruption charges against Zuma. If they get reinstated it would be bad for her because she’s coupled on the tote with him. A whole lot of events have to happen before you can predict things with some degree of clarity.”

David Thomas

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