South Africa’s Zuma survives no confidence vote — Here’s what happens next

Key Points
  • South Africa's President Jacob Zuma survives no confidence vote.
  • The divisive president won 198 votes in his favor versus 177.
  • Analysts suggest he could still be overthrown before his term ends in 2019.
South African President Jacob Zuma
Christopher Furlong | Getty Images

South Africa's scandal-hit President Jacob Zuma was thrown another lifeline Tuesday after a parliamentary vote saw him receive sufficient backing from within his African National Congress (ANC) party to stave off challengers.

Zuma, who has been embroiled in corruption allegations since taking office in 2009, survived a no confidence vote by a majority of 198 votes to 177, after a motion was called by the opposition Democratic Alliance party who accuse him of suppressing democracy.

The result is seen as a victory for the 75-year-old leader who has remained at the helm of the country's dominant ANC for eight years. This despite undergoing many no confidence votes on the back of corruption charges and the continued demise of the economy, which slipped into technical recession in June.

Yet the continued reign of Zuma is far from clear. Now in his second and final term as national president, Zuma will be replaced in the country's 2019 general election. However, with the ANC's leadership election in December fast-approaching, some analysts suggest that Zuma could still be out in months rather than years.

What does the result tell us?

Tuesday's vote was the first to be conducted anonymously, which opponents hoped would allow dissidents from within Zuma's ANC to demonstrate their frustrations.

Ultimately he received around two dozen votes of no confidence from members of his own party, just half of the 50 required to pass the motion. However, a further dozen or so abstained or failed to show up.

"That's a statement in itself," Barnaby Fletcher, political analyst for South Africa at Control Risks, told CNBC over the phone Wednesday.

He referenced a source within the ANC who had said that the party expected Zuma to gain a majority of 218 votes from his party: "This is worse than their worst-case scenario," he said.

What's happening in Zuma's South Africa?

However, the lack of defiance is hardly surprising, according to Fletcher.

"We never believed it (a no confidence vote) was very likely," Fletcher said of Control Risk's house view. "Although there are a lot of ANC MPs (members of parliament) who are not happy, they were never likely to vote en masse for a proposition put forward by the opposition."

The ANC, which has remained in power throughout post-apartheid South Africa, originally under the leadership of Nelson Mandela, presents itself as a movement and the country's only legitimate option. To vote in favor of an opposition movement would be seen as recognizing that party as legitimate.

But, the outcome could allow for greater party divisions further down the line, Fletcher posits.

"It does not make sense to overthrow Zuma now - get rid of Zuma now and that throws leadership bids up in the air," he said.

"But the party certainly knows how to exert itself," Fletcher continued, saying that once a new leader is in place there becomes a "very credible possibility" that Zuma does not last out until 2019.

Who is in line to replace Zuma?

There remains time for prospective candidates to enter the race but the two frontrunners are Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa and Zuma's ex-wife Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma. The former, an ex-businessman with links to trade unions, is seen as capable and pragmatic, while the latter, a proven minister in her own right, faces scrutiny for her links to Zuma and her position as a woman.

Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa delivers a keynote address during the official renaming ceremony of the Nelson Mandela University
Lulama Zenzile | Foto24 | Gallo Images | Getty Images

"We have long said Ramaphosa is the most likely candidate and the weaker Zuma becomes the weaker Dlamini-Zuma succession bid is," Fletcher said.

What chances do opposition parties have in 2019?

"The opposition outside the ANC likely secretly are happy Zuma stays as they view his continued stay in office as likely the worst case for the ANCs electoral prospects in the 2019 elections. Through this vote they will again argue that the ANC proved that it is not fit to govern," Timothy Ash, economist at Bluebay Asset Management, wrote in a research note Wednesday.

Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma (L) greets South African President Jacob Zuma (R) at the 5th Annual Policy Conference in Johannesburg on June, 30, 2017.
Mujahid Safodien | AFP | Getty Images

However, opposition parties will have a tough time overthrowing the incumbent ANC, who have been in power for a quarter-century. Though the party's support has dwindled amid continued Zuma-fueled controversy, this has been primarily in regional votes, which are often seen as protest votes. The party continued to amass more than 60 percent of votes in the last election.

The leading opposition Democratic Alliance party, though gaining voter share from smaller parties, has failed to make headway into the ANC's stronghold. The Economic Freedom party, on the other hand, has been stealing votes, but Fletcher suggests such progress will take longer to bear fruit.

"2019 is too early for opponents," Fletcher proposed. "The ANC would have to fall a long way to lose power."

What does this mean for the economy?

The dollar rose sharply against the South African rand from around $13.1991 to $13.4091 following the result of the vote, as markets reacted to the prospect of continued radical economic reforms under Zuma. These include populist policies such as land redistribution which have proved concerning for investors.

However, with a new party leader potentially due in by the end of the year, efforts to revive the country's ailing economy are likely to come under renewed pressure.

"The role of the party president is to put together a unified solution," Fletcher noted, referencing the ANC's wide-reaching supporter demographic. "There is a very real feeling that Zuma is failing to do that because he is fighting off corruption charges."

"Whoever comes into power we would expect to see an improvement in the economic environment."

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