South African President Jacob Zuma prepares to deliver a speech in Polokwane. File picture: Siphiwe Sibeko/Reuters

Johannesburg/Cape Town - President Jacob Zuma has apparently survived the most serious challenge to his leadership yet, after a contingent of top officials tried to force him from office during a meeting of the ruling party’s National Executive Committee.

Two members of the committee who were at the meeting said on condition of anonymity that the committee, which ended a three-day meeting late on Monday, decided that the top six members of the ANC would discuss Zuma’s fitness to remain president before a consultative conference next year. 

The committee, the most powerful party body between national conferences held every five years, has the power to order Zuma to resign as president of the country, not as leader of the ANC.

The NEC is expected to brief the media on the outcomes of the meeting, including discussions on Zuma's fitness to lead the ruling party on Tuesday afternoon. ANC national spokesperson Zizi Kodwa issued a media alert late on Monday, saying the briefing would take place at 2pm at Luthuli House in Johannesburg.

Zuma’s seven-year tenure as president has been marred by a succession of scandals and policy missteps that have weighed on the rand and put the nation’s investment-grade credit rating at risk. While Zuma, 74, has survived several previous challenges to his leadership, the fact that members of his own cabinet have openly turned against him is the clearest sign yet that his grip on power is slipping. He’s scheduled to step down as the ANC’s leader in December next year and his second term as president ends in 2019.

Zuma's second term as ANC president ends next year after the party's elective conference, where his successor will be elected.

Supporters of ANC deputy president Cyril Ramaphosa on Monday night conceded that removing Zuma could damage their bid against Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma who is favoured by some sections of the ANC to succeed Zuma as president at next year’s party conference.

An ANC source said the objective, for now, would be to weaken Zuma to such an extent that he would limp along to the finish line, without the ability to sway the succession race.

Another ANC source said the most vocal voices against Zuma had come from ANC backbenchers in the National Assembly. ”The August local government elections had showed them that the party was losing support and their seats in Parliament would be threatened come 2019. They’ve been asking for action to be taken against Zuma, to arrest the party’s decline,” said the ANC insider.

A former member of the ANC national executive said previous attempts to rein in Zuma had been rebuffed by the same people who were now opposed to him. ”Zuma was only supposed to serve one term. We saw that the Guptas were a problem in 2010 but nothing was done about them, and now we’re in this situation,” he said.

Anne Fruhauf, vice-president at New York-based risk adviser Teneo Intelligence, said by email:  “Although Zuma lives another day, his power is clearly waning. Investors are concerned that the president may go for broke in the wake of the bruising NEC meeting. A cabinet reshuffle seems almost inevitable.”

Tourism Minister Derek Hanekom on Saturday proposed the motion of no confidence in Zuma. Those also calling for him to step down reportedly were Health Minister Aaron Motsoaledi, Public Works Minister Thulas Nxesi, Science and Technology Minister Naledi Pandor, and Jackson Mthembu, the ANC’s chief whip in Parliament.

The rebellion within the ANC comes almost a month after former Public Protector Thuli Madonsela released a report indicating that Zuma may have allowed members of a wealthy family, who are his friends and in business with his son, to influence cabinet appointments and the awarding of state contracts. Zuma denies the allegation and is challenging the ombudsman’s findings in court.

In March, the Constitutional Court ruled that he violated his oath of office by refusing to repay taxpayer funds spent on upgrading his private home. In August, the ANC suffered its worst electoral performance in a local government vote, losing control of Pretoria and Johannesburg.

The rand strengthened the most in almost a month earlier on Monday, leading global gains against the dollar, climbing as much as 2.8 percent. It weakened 0.4 percent to 13.7794 per dollar as of 12.28am in Johannesburg.

South Africa moved closer to a junk credit rating after Fitch Ratings on Friday changed the outlook on its assessment to negative from stable and said that continued political instability could result in a downgrade. Political risks to the standards of governance and policy making have increased and will remain high at least until the ANC leadership election in December next year, Fitch said in an emailed statement. Moody’s Investors Service left the country’s rating at two levels above non-investment grade.

“The ANC National Executive Committee is no longer insulated or seemingly impenetrable to pressures from the ANC branches and formations in opposition to Zuma,” said Daniel Silke, director of the Political Futures Consultancy in Cape Town.