CAPE TOWN/JOHANNESBURG (Reuters) – Lawmakers in South Africa’s ruling African National Congress (ANC) pledged to back President Jacob Zuma in a no-confidence motion in parliament on Tuesday, aiming to thwart opposition efforts to force him out.
Zuma, who has held power since 2009, has struggled to fend off accusations of corruption and mismanaging the economy and if the vote was to carry, he would have to relinquish office.
The parliamentary speaker on Monday ruled it would be a secret ballot — a decision the opposition hoped would embolden ANC members who are unhappy with Zuma to vote against him.
The rand, bonds and banking shares surged on that news, buoyed by the prospect of Zuma’s removal.
The rand was slightly firmer as the no-confidence debate in parliament started. A vote was expected when it ended.
“I plead with you let us put the people of South Africa first and vote to remove Jacob Zuma today,” Mmusi Maimane, the leader of the main opposition Democratic Alliance (DA) party told parliament.
For a graphic on seats in parliament, click tmsnrt.rs/2hFvn5h
Speaking on behalf of the ANC, deputy chief whip Doris Dlakude said the motion against Zuma amounted to a “power grab” by the opposition.
“The ANC rejects this motion with the contempt it deserves,” she said.
Zuma has upset investors, in particular by removing finance minister Pravin Gordhan in March. The country’s credit rating was downgraded to junk by two of the top three rating agencies, unemployment is at a 14-year high of 27.7 percent and the economy is back in recession.
The ANC has 249 seats in the 400-seat parliament and the opposition controls 151, so it would take 50 ANC lawmakers backing the opposition to vote Zuma and his cabinet out.
The party, which has ruled South Africa since the end of apartheid in 1994, is deeply divided and several ANC lawmakers have voiced criticism of Zuma.
But ANC chief whip Jackson Mthembu said that at a meeting before the parliamentary session, the party resolved to support him. Several ANC lawmakers left the meeting singing.
“You hear the singing,” Mthembu told eNCA television channel. “Zuma was toyi-toying (dancing), that is what we do when we are under attack.”
Zuma was described as being calm and jovial the meeting, but did not address the lawmakers.
On the streets, protesters blocked roads with burning tyres and rocks in the commercial hub Johannesburg and capital Pretoria, temporarily blocking traffic.
In Cape Town, where parliament is located, thousands of opposition supporters held a rally, carrying posters saying “Fire Zuma” and a cartoon of Zuma in a dustbin.
“Go, Zuma go!” Maimane, called out to the crowd.
“We will vote this afternoon to make sure he leaves.”
Julius Malema, leader of the leftist Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF), said: “We are here to reclaim our country.”
ANC members also rallied in Cape Town to support Zuma, some carrying placards saying: “Zuma must stay”.
ANC’s Secretary General Gwede Mantashe said the no-confidence motion was attack against the party.
“It’s about removing the ANC from power in a non-democratic way, therefore MPs have a responsibility to defend the ANC,” Mantashe said.
Newspaper headlines reflected the high stakes at play — “JZ’s moment of truth” read The Star, while The Sowetan declared: “High Noon for Zuma”. Parliament was due to begin debating the motion at around 2 p.m. (1200 GMT), ahead of the vote.
Zuma has survived eight no-confidence votes during his eight years in power thanks to loyal voting by ANC lawmakers, but those votes were not secret.
ANC lawmaker Derek Hanekom, who was removed as tourism minister in the cabinet reshuffle that cost Gordhan his job, said on Twitter that lawmakers must vote against “massive looting and corruption. Vote for change”.
Nomura analyst Peter Attard Montalto said the decision to have a secret ballot was “a significant surprise” but he expected Zuma to survive.
“We still expect the vote to fail, but attach a 30 percent chance of success,” he said.
If the motion is successful, Zuma – whose term is due to run until 2019 – would be removed as president but would remain as ANC leader until December, when he is due to step down and a new leader elected in his place.
Should he be forced to quit, the speaker would take over and the National Assembly would be expected to elect a new president within 30 days.
As the largest party in parliament, the ANC would be expected to select the new president and government.
The ANC — once all-powerful as heir of South Africa’s anti-apartheid struggle — has lost popularity under Zuma, underscored by its worst electoral showing in over two decades of power in local elections last year. Thousands of people took part in protest marches in April calling for Zuma to step down.
Additional reporting by TJ Strydom in Cape Town and Tanisha Heiberg and Mfuneko Toyana in Johannesburg Writing by James Macharia