January 25, 2018 / 5:04 PM / 6 months ago

ANC leader says South Africa in new era as talk of Zuma exit grows

* Zuma replaced by Ramaphosa as ANC leader last month

* Ruling party discusses removing Zuma as president

* Zuma has survived other challenges but now looks weak

By Alexander Winning and Alexis Akwagyiram

JOHANNESBURG/DAVOS, Jan 25 (Reuters) - The new leader of South Africa's ruling African National Congress (ANC) said on Thursday the country had entered a new era under his leadership, in a fresh sign that Jacob Zuma's days as president are numbered.

Cyril Ramaphosa's declaration reflects the party's desire to win back the trust of investors and convince voters ahead of next year's election that it can boost the economy.

But above all it shows the ANC wants to overcome the taint of corruption it acquired since Zuma became president in 2009.

"We are in a new era. We had an old leadership of the ANC, we now have a new leadership of the ANC," Ramaphosa said on the sidelines of the World Economic Forum in Davos, where he was leading South Africa's delegation.

"Many of the business leaders that I have met here have said they are buoyed by this new mood in the country," he said.

Zuma, 75, has seen a reversal of fortune since deputy president Ramaphosa succeeded him as ANC leader last month.

Loyalists have deserted him in droves and the party is discussing whether to force him to resign as head of state before his second term ends next year.

ANC sources differ on the timing of Zuma's exit, and estimates range from several weeks to months.

The ANC has held power under three different leaders since the end of apartheid in 1994, but the party's electoral dominance is shrinking, making Ramaphosa's task more urgent.

He now controls the party's National Executive Committee, which can instruct Zuma to resign. If Zuma refuses, the ANC could threaten a no-confidence vote in parliament that Zuma would likely lose.

"This is the end of the Zuma era," said Melanie Verwoerd, a political analyst and former ANC lawmaker. "Things are unravelling very quickly but the bottom line is that Ramaphosa is in charge."

SHARK-INFESTED WATERS

This month, leading cartoonist Zapiro depicted Zuma being made to walk the plank over shark-infested waters as ANC cadres stood on the deck, pistols drawn.

"The majority view on the NEC is that Zuma must go," a senior ANC source allied to Ramaphosa told Reuters. "The top officials are talking to Zuma about options for his exit. I can't see this matter going beyond March."

A source aligned with Zuma's faction in the ANC said that timeframe was too tight. "ANC officials have only started to engage on the matter," the source said.

Zuma has not said whether he will step down and his spokesman did not return calls seeking comment.

Zuma has survived corruption charges, a rape accusation and street protests. He chuckled in parliament when opposition lawmakers asked why public money had been used to renovate his Nkandla home but he now faces a tougher battle.

"Zuma should step down," said Sdumo Dlamini, president of trade union federation COSATU, which is an important ANC ally.

Some analysts say Zuma is holding out for a deal to protect him from prosecution after he resigns. But South African law does not grant such immunity.

"Zuma will try to hold out for as long as he can but his exit is inevitable," said Darias Jonker, director for Africa at Eurasia Group. "I don't see Ramaphosa taking his foot off the gas." (Editing by Matthew Mpoke Bigg)

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