🔒 Melanie Verwoerd: What Zuma’s return means for SA politics

In the throes of South Africa’s political arena, the dismissal of the ANC’s challenge against the MK Party, led by former President Jacob Zuma, marks a pivotal moment ahead of the upcoming election. Zuma’s return to the forefront stirs apprehension among investors, with concerns looming over economic reforms and potential coalition shifts. Yet, amid fears of his influence, the MK Party’s lasting impact remains uncertain, contingent on voter sway and ANC resilience in the face of mounting pressures.

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By Melanie Verwoerd

On Tuesday, South Africa’s Electoral Court dismissed the governing African National Congress party’s bid to invalidate the registration of the MK Party — led by former President Jacob Zuma — ahead of the May election. ___STEADY_PAYWALL___

Having filed the motion months after the legal deadline, the ANC’s action was never going to succeed. But even with the new party in the race, it doesn’t change the electoral picture as much as many people fear.  

Zuma’s nine-year presidency, which ended in 2018, was marred by state capture and a series of corruption scandals that damaged the South African economy and tarnished the country’s image. He’s also known for promoting a policy of “Radical Economic Transformation,” which includes the expropriation of land without compensation as well as the nationalization of the Reserve Bank and other state assets.

It comes as no surprise then that the return of Zuma to active politics — he endorsed and became the leader of The uMkhonto we Sizwe, or MK Party, last year — has raised serious concerns among domestic and international investors about the impact he could have on South Africa’s fragile process of economic reform and the relinquishing of state control in various sectors of the economy. There are worries too that the rise of support for the MK Party could force the ANC into a coalition with the market-unfriendly Economic Freedom Fighters party.

Although there’s no doubt the MK Party will get significant support amongst Zulu speaking voters (Zuma’s main constituency), the former president’s personal involvement will be short-lived. Having received a prison sentence of more than 12 months without the option of a fine in 2021, Zuma is constitutionally barred from becoming a member of parliament. Even outside of government, the 81-year-old, who is reportedly unwell, is unlikely to remain politically active for long. Since Zuma is the major — and perhaps only — draw for voters to the MK Party, it also seems unlikely that the group will exist beyond this year’s election.

Of course, this does not allay fears about his influence in the immediate future.

Recent opinion polls suggest that the MK Party could get as much as 35% of the vote in the province of Kwa-Zulu Natal, 22% in Mpumalanga and 7% in Gauteng. However, the highest polling numbers for the national parliament stands at 10%. In such a scenario, they would win 40 out of 400 seats. Similar to the EFF, which currently occupies 44 seats, they would at most be an irritant to the governing party.

The more important question is the impact that the MK Party could have on ANC support and the resulting coalitions.

Revengeful after losing to Cyril Ramaphosa at the ANC 2017 Elective Conference, Zuma’s campaign speeches have been extremely critical of the president and the ANC under his leadership. This resonates with disaffected ANC voters, many of whom see the MK Party as an alternative at the polls. This adds further pressure on the ANC, which is already in danger of losing its majority for the first time since the dawn of democracy in South Africa in 1994.  

Recent polls suggest that ANC support might fall below 45% — a dramatic decrease from the 57% in the previous election in 2019.  This has raised concerns about the possibility of a coalition with the EFF, whose policies include the nationalization of key industries such as mines as well as mass expropriation of private land.

But it’s unlikely this partnership would happen. Experience has taught us that the ANC rallies in the last two months before an election and that their numbers climb sharply nearer to voting day. Global polling agency Ipsos, for example, still maintains that it’s possible for the ANC to reach 50% depending on turnout on the day.

Even in the case of the majority party dropping below 50% or even 45%, ANC insiders insist that the governing party will only enter into a coalition agreement with the EFF as a last resort; it would prefer a coalition with the market-friendly Democratic Alliance, which is currently the official opposition and/or the Kwa-Zulu Natal-based Inkatha Freedom Party.

It’s also important to remember that corporate South Africa has in the past prevented the government from making economically disastrous decisions. For example, in 2015 then-President Zuma fired the highly respected finance minister Nhlanhla Nene and replaced him with the inexperienced Des van Rooyen — a move that wiped more than R500 billion ($26 billion) off the markets in four days. Influential business leaders intervened and convinced Zuma to bring back the highly regarded Pravin Gordhan, who stabilized markets and served as finance minister until 2017.

Zuma’s promotion of Zulu tribalism, and the continuous threats of violence by his supporters should their leader or party be banned from participating in the election, have also ushered in fears of a repeat of the 2021 “Zuma riots.” Although these threats must be taken seriously, the government is not only better informed of the risks (which have been circulating widely on social media), it has also learned to respond much faster than it did three years ago.

Zuma and his MK Party have created a lot of noise in an otherwise predictable election campaign, but unless support for them grows exponentially in the next eight weeks — which seems highly unlikely — their impact on future government policy will be minimal. Unlike the ANC, observers can at least take a breath.

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