South African President Jacob Zuma was fighting for his political life Monday as he resisted attempts from inside the ruling African National Congress party leadership to oust him.
The ruling party called for a special meeting on Wednesday of its highest leadership body, where the fate of the embattled President could be decided. The National Executive Committee has the power to recall Zuma, who has faced increasing pressure to go.
Earlier, clashes broke out between ANC party activists and Zuma supporters from the small Black First Land First group outside the ANC headquarters in Johannesburg as the party’s national working committee, one of its highest decision-making bodies, met to discuss the leadership crisis.
Senior ANC leaders met with Zuma over the weekend, reportedly to ask him to step down, but he refused, according to local media reports. The working committee would need to call a full ANC leadership meeting as an extraordinary measure if the party was bent on throwing out Zuma.
One possibility is that Zuma will be recalled, though this may raise significant constitutional issues. Per ANC rules, all members – even elected officials – fulfill their functions according to the will of the party.
But the real test will be whether Zuma is able to deliver the President’s annual State of the Nation address scheduled to take place before Parliament on Thursday.
Zuma, whose term ends next year, was weakened in December when Cyril Ramaphosa, the deputy president, beat Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, a former Cabinet minister who is also Zuma’s ex-wife, in a leadership contest.
Ramaphosa has so far stayed away from the clamor for Zuma to resign but his supporters and those of Zuma are deeply divided inside the ANC.
Others did not mince their words. During a news conference in Johannesburg on Monday, Julius Malema, leader of the broadly left-wing South African Economic Freedom Fighters, one of the country’s main opposition parties, labeled Zuma a “criminal” while reiterating his party’s call for a motion of no confidence.
A motion of no confidence is scheduled for February 22. Zuma narrowly survived a no confidence vote last year.
Malema said Zuma is prepared to defy the leadership of his party, saying “he has done it before, he will do it again.”
“What is even worse is that Zuma is not scared of impeachment,” Malema said, adding “the only way to remove him is through a motion of no confidence.”
Why is Zuma in trouble?
Zuma has been mired in controversy for years. In 2016, South Africa’s top court ruled that Zuma had acted unconstitutionally when he used $15 million in public funds to upgrade his private home, and ordered him to repay some of the money.
Zuma, a polygamist and father of more than 20 children, also faces more than 783 allegations of corruption relating to a 1990s arms deal.
He denies all the corruption allegations against him. And despite street protests, opposition maneuvering, and defections from his own party, he has always refused to step down voluntarily.
This story has been updated to correct the year that the Constitutional Court ordered Zuma to repay public funds over house improvements, and the amount he was ordered to pay.
CNN’s David McKenzie reported from Johannesburg, while Hilary Clarke wrote from London.