Jacob Zuma has refused to repay taxpayers' money used to refurbish his private rural house
Johannesburg (AFP) - South African President Jacob Zuma on Monday faced the biggest challenge to his leadership since taking power in 2009 as the ruling ANC party debated his future and calls grew for him to resign.
Zuma has been hit by a series of corruption scandals and damaging court rulings this year, while the ANC suffered a sharp setback in local polls in August and unemployment has hit a 13-year high.
A weekend meeting of the African National Congress (ANC) national executive committee was extended into Monday after a rebellion led by senior government figures.
Tourism Minister Derek Hanekom, Health Minister Aaron Motsoaledi and Public Works Minister Thulas Nxesi all called on the president to step down, the News24 news agency reported, citing party sources.
The ruling party gave no official comment after the prolonged national executive meeting but promised a press conference at 2:00 pm (1200 GMT) on Tuesday.
The president, who has survived numerous scandals while in office, has been under renewed pressure since a corruption probe earlier this month unearthed fresh allegations of misconduct.
The probe by the country's top watchdog uncovered evidence of possible criminal activity in Zuma's relationship with the Guptas, a business family accused of wielding undue political influence.
"He is at his weakest. He is under extreme pressure," political analyst Daniel Silke told AFP.
"I don't think the ANC is ready for a very fast departure, but this is an unprecedented show of anti-Zuma support.
"We could see a warning sign to the president that his days are numbered."
- 'Fighting for political life' -
However Zuma, 74, retains strong loyalty among many rank-and-file ANC party members, as well as its lawmakers. He easily survived a vote of no confidence in parliament on November 10.
Neither the ANC nor any of the three ministers reportedly calling for Zuma's head commented on Monday, as the party meeting at a hotel near Pretoria continued.
Increasing numbers of anti-apartheid veterans, ANC activists, trade unions, civil groups and business leaders have called for the president to resign in recent months.
The ANC, which has ruled since Nelson Mandela won the first post-apartheid elections in 1994, has seen its popularity dive, with local polls in August delivering the party's worst-ever result.
Zuma's term in office ends in 2019, but the ANC is due to elect a new party leader at the end of next year and could decide to replace him as head of state.
"There is no doubt that Zuma is fighting for his political life," analyst Ranjeni Munusamy wrote on the Daily Maverick website.
"He is hanging on while it is clear that large sections of the ANC... no longer want him as president."
South Africa's highest court this year found him guilty of violating the constitution after he refused to repay taxpayers' money used to refurbish his private rural house.
He is also fighting a court order that could reinstate almost 800 corruption charges against him over a multi-billion dollar arms deal in the 1990s.
- Economic woes -
International credit rating firm Fitch on Friday dropped its outlook for South Africa from stable to negative, pointing to the country's recent political turmoil.
Zuma has also been engulfed by a power struggle with Finance Minister Pravin Gordhan.
Zuma's loyalists have been at loggerheads with Gordhan, a reformist who is widely respected among international investors.
Mmusi Maimane, leader of the main opposition Democratic Alliance party, told AFP that he expected Zuma to ride out the latest bout of criticism.
"I think it will probably be a deferred decision until next year," he said.
"The ANC (has) a very difficult decision about who will succeed him and which faction that will come from because it's a deeply divided organisation."
When Zuma leaves office, the three leading possible successors are his ex-wife, African Union chief Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, Deputy President Cyril Ramaphone par
osa and ANC treasurer-general Zweli Mkhize.
The Business Day newspaper reported that many of Zuma's supporters rushed back to the ANC meeting after missing proceedings to attend a wedding near Cape Town.