South African President Jacob Zuma has publicly endorsed his ex-wife for the leadership of the African National Congress, the party which has governed the country since the end of racial segregation in 1994.
Zuma—whose term as president is due to end in 2019—has been head of ANC since 2007 but is likely to be replaced at the party’s elective conference in December.
Two figures have emerged as the leading candidates within the ANC to replace Zuma, Cyril Ramaphosa, the country’s current deputy-president, and Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, the former head of the African Union (AU) Commission who has held various ministerial positions under successive South African presidents, including Nelson Mandela.
Zuma appeared to give his backing to Dlamini-Zuma when speaking at a church service on Sunday in Bulwer, a town in the eastern KwaZulu-Natal province and Dlamini-Zuma’s birthplace. Zuma was married to Dlamini-Zuma for 16 years between 1982 and 1998.
“She is bold and you can’t fool her. She is someone you can trust,” Zuma said in comments reported by South Africa’s Times Live reported. Dlamini-Zuma, who Zuma appointed as home affairs minister when he came to power in 2009, also had a transformative impact on the AU, he said.
“She is very respected in Africa and it would be surprising why she would not be respected in South Africa.”
The ANC has been in turmoil in recent months, losing control of several key cities—including the economic hub Johannesburg and the capital Pretoria—in local elections in 2016.
The result constituted the ANC’s worst election result since 1994, when apartheid—a system of white-minority rule—was ended with the election of Mandela.
Infighting in the party has focused on the future of Zuma, who has faced several scandals and continuous allegations of incompetence from opposition parties during his presidency.
Most recently, Zuma fired the popular ex-finance minister Pravin Gordhan in March, prompting ratings agencies to downgrade South Africa’s credit rating to junk status. The decision was met with dismay among some of the president’s closest allies— Ramaphosa described it as “totally unacceptable” —but the ANC’s leadership later closed ranks around the president.
South Africa’s highest court also ruled in 2016 that the president had violated the constitution by using state funds to expand his residence in Nkandla, in the country’s KwaZulu-Natal province, including building a swimming pool and cattle ranch.
Zuma is also battling the reinstatement of corruption charges that were dropped in 2009 but reinstated in 2016.
Dlamini-Zuma has four children with the president. She was the first woman to leader the African Union Commission, a role she ended in January. If chosen as the next ANC leader, Dlamini-Zuma would be the first female head of the party.