Jacob Zuma – the political wildcard in South Africa’s elections

By | March 14, 2024

Despite being a disgraced former president who was sent to prison, Jacob Zuma turns out to be the political wildcard in South Africa’s election campaign.

This follows his dramatic decision to leave the ruling African National Congress (ANC) for the newly formed party uMkhonto we Sizwe, which means Spear of the Nation.

The 81-year-old is leading his campaign in the May 29 general election, urging people to turn their backs on the ANC led by his successor president. Cyril Ramaphosa.

“Zuma, as always, is playing a mischievous hand,” political analyst Richard Calland told the BBC.

“He does not want power, but influence over the ANC. He wants to dethrone Ramaphosa for a more flexible leader,” he said.

The two most recent polls show Zuma’s party – known by the acronym MK – making a huge impact, with about 13% of the national vote and 25% in the former president’s political heartland, KwaZulu-Natal.

But Angelo Fick, research director at the Auwal Socio-Economic Research Institute in Johannesburg, believes the party will receive fewer votes, especially in the national parliament vote.

“I’ll be surprised if it gets to 6%,” he told the BBC.

MK party members march to Durban City Hall in South Africa - March 1, 2024MK party members march to Durban City Hall in South Africa - March 1, 2024

The MK party, named after the ANC’s former armed wing, hopes to maintain the balance of power by the end of May

To support his position, he cited the performance of the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) in the first elections it contested after the ANC youth leader was expelled. Julius Malema formed the party.

Malema absorbed a large portion of ANC youth members into the EFF, but the party received only 6% of the national vote in 2014, and 11% in 2019.

“The MK party is much weaker than the EFF in 2014,” Fick said.

Professor Calland said Zuma was key to getting votes for the party.

“He has a certain charisma and a populist appeal. He still has some loyalty and credibility, especially among the people of KwaZulu-Natal,” he added.

The MK party hopes to maintain the balance of power, especially as several opinion polls show the ANC could lose its outright majority in the national parliament for the first time since it took power at the end of white minority rule 30 years ago.

“Once we enter minority government territory, every percentage matters. If the MK party gets 3%, it could mean the difference between the ANC getting 48% and 51%,” Prof Calland said.

Paddy Harper, correspondent for the South African newspaper Mail & Guardian, KwaZulu-Natal, said the ANC was “potentially at its weakest in the province, and it will be a huge blow to the party if it loses control of the provincial management loses.”

“When Zuma was a member of the ANC, KwaZulu-Natal became the party’s largest and most influential province. It helped the ANC cross the 50% mark in every national election since 2004,” he told the BBC.

The ANC initially ignored the formation of the MK party, but after Mr Zuma declared his support for it in December, the party took legal action in the Electoral Tribunal to deregister the party and prevent it from standing set.

It also wants the High Court to ban the company from using the MK name, arguing that the ANC has copyrighted it.

The battle over the name is crucial because MK refers to the now defunct armed wing of the ANC that Nelson Mandela launched in 1961 to fight the racist system of apartheid.

It therefore has deep political symbolism, with the ANC determined to prevent Mr Zuma – who joined the ANC’s armed struggle as a teenager – from claiming to be his heir.

A fire engulfs Campsdrift Park, where Makro and China Mall are located, after protests turned into looting in Pietermaritzburg, South Africa, July 13, 2021A fire engulfs Campsdrift Park, where Makro and China Mall are located, after protests turned into looting in Pietermaritzburg, South Africa, July 13, 2021

Deadly riots broke out in South Africa after Jacob Zuma was jailed in 2021

In a widely circulated video earlier this month, a senior member of the MK Party, Visvin Reddy, warned that “anarchy” would ensue if the party were barred from participating in the elections.

The party spokesperson distanced MK from Mr Reddy’s comments, but similar comments were made by the party’s youth leader Bonginkosi Khanyile on Wednesday.

“If they remove the MKP and President Zuma as the face of the campaign from the vote and try to take away our rights, there will be no more elections in South Africa,” he said.

Another dispute rages over Mr Zuma’s eligibility to serve as a lawmaker, as he was convicted of contempt of court and sentenced to 15 months in prison in 2021 for refusing to cooperate in a judge-led investigation into corruption during his tenure. nine-year presidency.

Mr Zuma also faces 16 corruption charges over a multi-billion dollar arms deal, in a case that has dragged on for years as the former president challenges prosecutors’ efforts to bring him to justice.

The MK Party has put Mr Zuma at the top of its list of parliamentary candidates, despite the Independent Electoral Commission pointing out in January that his conviction disqualified him.

Harper said he expected Zuma to remain the public face of the MK party’s campaign – even if he did not run for parliament.

“It will only help Zuma stir things up and give him another reason to claim he is the victim of a political conspiracy,” he said.

Zuma’s daughter, Duduzile Zuma-Sambudla, has also been nominated by the MK party as a parliamentary candidate, indicating that the former president sees her as his political heir and guardian of his legacy.

Jacob Zuma and daughter Duduzile Zuma-Sambudla at the High Court of Johannesburg in South Africa - May 2023Jacob Zuma and daughter Duduzile Zuma-Sambudla at the High Court of Johannesburg in South Africa - May 2023

Duduzile Zuma-Sambudla, pictured here next to her father in court last May, is an MK candidate

The 41-year-old rose to fame for her inflammatory social media posts during the 2021 riots that hit South Africa following her father’s imprisonment.

“Let it burn,” she wrote, as buildings and vehicles were set ablaze, in violence that President Ramaphosa described as an attempt to stage an “uprising.”

In December, she was the one who read a statement on behalf of her father announcing that he had thrown his weight behind the MK party.

The statement characterized Ramaphosa as a “proxy” for “white capitalist interests” and said voting for the ANC would lead to a government by “sell-outs and apartheid collaborators”.

It showed the deep political hostility Mr Zuma harbors towards Mr Ramaphosa.

Many South Africans hope this will not lead to a new wave of violence as the two men battle it out during the elections.

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