Jacob Zuma’s comeback: A political headache for the ANC

Jacob Zuma, South Africa’s controversial former president, has reemerged onto the political stage with a new party, shaking up the landscape ahead of the upcoming elections. Despite allegations of corruption and a recent jail term, Zuma’s charisma draws significant support, particularly from his Zulu-speaking base. With promises of radical economic reforms, his party, uMkhonto weSizwe, challenges the long-standing dominance of the African National Congress, heralding a potentially seismic shift in South African politics.

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By S’thembile Cele

Jacob Zuma, who led South Africa for almost nine scandal-ridden years before the ruling party forced him from office, has staged a dramatic comeback and is shaking up politics before this month’s elections.

The charismatic 82-year-old is leading a new party that’s competing in the May 29 vote, which is shaping up to be the most closely contested since apartheid ended three decades ago. Opinion polls show the African National Congress is set to lose its parliamentary majority for the first time since it took power in 1994, a backlash to its failure to tackle economic stagnation, rampant poverty and power cuts, and that support for Zuma’s uMkhonto weSizwe Party, or MKP, may top 8%.

Jacob Zuma dances at an MKP rally in the eastern KwaZulu-Natal province. Photographer: Leon Sadiki/Bloomberg

That would see Zuma regain significant clout, even though he was accused by a judicial panel of being at the center of the plunder of $27 billion of taxpayer funds during his presidency and jailed for contempt of court in 2021, sparking rioting that claimed 354 lives. He denies any wrongdoing and has drawn thousands of people to rallies in his home province of KwaZulu-Natal, a key election battleground, where he retains a cult-like following among his fellow Zulu speakers. 

“It boggles the mind that somebody who caused the country and the economy so much harm still commands significant support,” said Melanie Verwoerd, an independent analyst and former ANC lawmaker. “He is pushing the ethnic, tribal lines very, very hard and that is primarily where his support is coming from. He is primarily looking for revenge against the ANC and President Cyril Ramaphosa, and taking full of advantage of their failure to sufficiently meet many voters’ expectations.”

Some analysts warn that the polls overstate the MKP’s support, but if even the most conservative predictions prove accurate, the party will secure a number of seats in the new parliament and the KwaZulu-Natal provincial legislature. The party’s key campaign pledges include the nationalization of banks and mines, the expropriation of land without compensation and the expansion of the welfare net. 

“I have listened to Zuma’s vision, I love it, I understand and so I joined the party,” said Philile Khumalo, 33, one of hundreds of the ex-president’s devotees who attended a MKP rally near his homestead in the eastern village of Nkandla last week. “He prioritizes us and our needs.”  

Zuma tops his party’s list of candidate lawmakers, although the electoral commission is contesting his eligibility to stand because of his criminal conviction. The Constitutional Court is scheduled to hear the case on May 10. 

While the MKP says it expects Zuma to lead the next government, the ANC has dismissed it as posing any serious threat. Besides KwaZulu-Natal, the polls show the MKP has some backing in  Gauteng, the nation’s industrial hub, and northeastern Mpumalanga province. 

The prospect of having an unstable government with the MKP or the leftist Economic Freedom Fighters — currently the third-biggest party — securing access to key positions has unnerved foreign investors, who’ve offloaded 43.4 billion rand ($2.3 billion) worth of South African stocks this year. The nation’s dollar bonds have meanwhile lagged most emerging-market peers. 

Zuma’s political record has fueled the unease. He started as a freedom fighter against apartheid, but has been ensnared in a series of corruption scandals for almost three decades. 

He joined the ANC in his teens, served a decade in Robben Island prison along with Nelson Mandela and played a key role in helping negotiate a peaceful end to apartheid before becoming the nation’s deputy president in 1999. He was fired six years later amid allegations that his financial adviser tried to solicit a bribe for him. Zuma denies wrongdoing and the case remains ongoing.

Zuma wrested control of the ANC from Thabo Mbeki in December 2007 and assumed the nation’s presidency in May 2009. His tenure was marred by repeated policy missteps and public debt skyrocketed as his administration buckled to state workers’ demands for inflation-beating raises. 

Scores of witnesses testified before a judicial inquiry that spanned more than four years how the coffers of state departments and companies were looted with Zuma’s tacit consent. The government estimates that more than 500 billion rand was stolen, and Judge Raymond Zondo, now the nation’s chief justice, found that Zuma was central to the plunder, helping his allies secure posts and illicit contracts. He hasn’t been indicted  on related charges. 

Zuma was convicted of contempt in 2021 for refusing to testify before Zondo. He was freed on medical parole after serving less than two months of his 15-month term and Ramaphosa, who succeeded Zuma in 2018, granted him a remission of sentence in August 2023. 

Still, relations between the two have remained acrimonious. At last week’s rally in Nkandla, Zuma took a thinly veiled dig at Ramaphosa, who grew wealthy after founding his own investment company.

“There are Black people in South Africans who are now billionaires,” Zuma said. “They don’t remember Black people and their plight.”

The MKP has said it may work with like-minded parties should there be no outright election winner either nationally or in KwaZulu-Natal, but that a tie-up with the ANC is unlikely.  

“We formed the MK Party because we grew tired of the ANC,” Sihle Ngubane, a senior MKP official, said in an interview in Nkandla. “It will be difficult to then turn around and say that we can be bedfellows with them.”

While Zuma has missed several planned appearances at rallies and has several stitches above his left eye, MKP officials dismissed reports that he took a fall and is in poor heath. 

“For Zuma, it’s the final roll of the dice in his attempt to seek vindication and prove that he still has leverage,” said Sanusha Naidu, a Cape Town-based research associate at the Institute for Global Dialogue. “He feels he hasn’t been respected as an elder, that his contribution to a party that he gave his life to has been disregarded and that he now being portrayed as fickle and corrupt.“

Bheki Cele, an unemployed 44-year-old, still sees Zuma as the best hope for the country, despite his failings. 

“We need him to return because he did so much when he was president, we progressed a lot as people under him. There was a jobs bloodbath after he left,” Cele said at the Gamalakhe township on the east coast, which Zuma didn’t attend. “I accept that there was some wrongdoing on his part, there is no one who is without blame in this life.” 

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