🔒 Zuma’s electoral victory: A threat to SA’s reform efforts – Justice Malala

Jacob Zuma, South Africa’s former president, known as “Phunyuka bamphethe” or the “escape artist” for his knack for dodging legal troubles, has once again stunned the nation. The electoral court ruled he could run in the May 29 elections with his new Umkhonto weSizwe Party, challenging the ANC and President Cyril Ramaphosa. This development comes despite a Constitution barring those with significant prison sentences from public office, sparking concerns of a regression to the “nine wasted years” of Zuma’s presidency, marked by corruption and economic decline. With Zuma’s popularity surging in KwaZulu-Natal, his potential return to power threatens to derail South Africa’s reform efforts, signalling a precarious shift in the nation’s political landscape.

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By Justice Malala ___STEADY_PAYWALL___

Former president Jacob Zuma’s old isiZulu nickname is ringing around South Africa again. Phunyuka bamphethe (literally meaning “s/he who always escapes from custody” or “escape artist”) is being invoked after the country’s electoral court ruled Tuesday that Zuma, a former convict, can contest the May 29 elections as a main candidate of his new organization, the Umkhonto weSizwe (MK) Party.

It’s a stunning victory for the 81-year-old politician, a major setback for his old party, the ANC, now led by President Cyril Ramaphosa, and a blow to South Africa’s reform efforts. Zuma oversaw what has been termed the country’s nine wasted years — characterized by large-scale corruption and economic decline. His influence now risks a significant step backwards.

South Africa’s Constitution bars individuals sentenced to more than 12 months’ imprisonment, without an option of a fine, from holding public office. The Electoral Commission of South Africa had earlier barred Zuma from contesting a seat in Parliament because he was sentenced to 15 months in prison for contempt of court in 2021. The conviction stemmed from Zuma’s refusal to comply with a court order to testify at a judicial inquiry into corruption during his presidency.

The Electoral Court has, without giving reason, now overturned the commission’s decision.

Zuma has in the past claimed that his being barred by the commission was part of a conspiracy by Ramaphosa, foreign intelligence agencies and White business interests, to deny him power to pursue his allegedly pro-poor agenda. He has escaped unscathed from numerous brushes with the law.

In 2007, he was acquitted of raping an HIV-positive daughter of a friend. He avoided prosecution after being accused of using taxpayers’ money for upgrades to his rural homestead and of influencing the passing of government contracts to his business allies. He was released in just two hours when he was jailed for contempt of court in 2021. In an ongoing case, he has been fighting the state’s multiple charges of corruption against him for 19 years.

Since he announced the MK Party’s existence on Dec. 16, 2023, Zuma has been winning the public relations war against the ANC at every turn. That puts him in the front line of politics in the key KwaZulu-Natal province (which is the second most populous in the country in terms of registered voters) and makes him a possible kingmaker in future coalition negotiations.

Zuma’s victory in the electoral court is the second such win in just two weeks. He delivered a significant PR blow to the ANC on March 26 when his MK Party won the first of the ANC’s legal attempts to get it deregistered as a political party. On the same day, six ANC councilors and several former ANC leaders announced that they joined his MK Party.

A poll by the Social Research Foundation in October, ahead of Zuma announcing the MK Party, showed that he was 10 times more popular than Ramaphosa in KwaZulu-Natal. A follow-up survey in January found that 63% of respondents in the province approved of the former president.

The ANC was already in trouble in KwaZulu-Natal, where it tumbled from 65% in 2014 to 55% of votes cast in 2019. A March 2024 poll by the Brenthurst Foundation projected that Zuma’s MK Party is set to be the largest party in the province with 25% of the vote, while the ANC will get 20%. It said “voters appear to have left the ANC, Economic Freedom Fighters and Inkatha Freedom Party for Zuma’s party in significant numbers. The MK Party is set to overtake the EFF (10%) with 13% of the vote (at national level).”

A Zuma win in KwaZulu-Natal would have major consequences for South Africa. First, it would drag the ANC’s overall showing — already projected to be below 50% by virtually all pollsters — to around 40% or even less. That would make it harder for the ANC to build a coalition of small center-left parties and continue Ramaphosa’s centrist reform agenda. In this scenario, the ANC may be forced into a coalition with the radical, left-wing, EFF (which is pushing for a doubling of social welfare payments, large-scale expropriation without compensation of land and mines) and Zuma’s MK Party.

Most concerning, however, is the possible return of Zuma to an influential position in government. In his nine years in power, Zuma ran the equivalent of a corrupt Mafia state. Global companies were forced into cozy relationships with his benefactors. Major state-owned companies such as South African Airways collapsed due to the incompetence of his cronies. A judicial inquiry found that he appointed a finance minister on the instruction of his friends.

A South Africa with Zuma anywhere near the levers of power would be a return to the country’s worst-ever days since democracy dawned 30 years ago.

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