🔒 FT: How world sees SA: ‘Wrecking ball’ Jacob Zuma upends SA election

Amidst the rolling hills of KwaZulu-Natal, outside Jacob Zuma’s fortified homestead, a devoted band stands guard, declaring unwavering loyalty to the embattled ex-president. Despite recent political exile, Zuma’s resurgence with the uMkhonto weSizwe party has sent shockwaves through South Africa’s electoral landscape. Surging in polls, his disruptive influence threatens to dismantle ANC dominance, heralding a potential era of coalition politics and exposing deep-seated divisions within the nation’s political fabric.

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By Monica Mark in Nkandla

Former ANC leader has been surprise package of the campaign, drawing packed rallies and unnerving one-time allies ___STEADY_PAYWALL___

Outside Jacob Zuma’s sprawling Nkandla homestead, nestled in the hills of rural KwaZulu–Natal, a team of volunteers keep lookout in front of a khaki-green military tent. It was, they said, their duty as supporters of the former president to protect him.

“We’re very peaceful people, but we’re here to look after ‘the old man’ because his enemies want to take him down,” said a member of the group wearing a beret and combat trousers.

It is the kind of fervent devotion that has driven a wave of support for the former president ahead of a critical general election on May 29. Yet as recently as January, the 82-year-old African National Congress veteran appeared to have been cast into the political wilderness after he was suspended from the party he once helmed for launching “vitriolic attacks” against the leadership and backing a rival one.

But rather than wither, Zuma and his wild card uMkhonto weSizwe (MK) party have been the surprise package of the campaign, drawing packed rallies, rattling rivals, including his former party, and upsetting the electoral calculus in a vote that threatens to overturn President Cyril Ramaphosa’s ANC majority for the first time in three decades.

“Jacob Zuma is the wrecking ball of this coming election,” Gayton McKenzie, leader of the Patriotic Alliance, one of a number of political upstarts vying with established parties for votes, said last month. “Anybody that is not worried about Jacob Zuma has not been paying attention.”

A poll this week by the Johannesburg-based Social Research Foundation placed MK — the name is borrowed from the apartheid-era armed wing of the ANC — third in the ballot with 13 per cent, a remarkable share for a party that only registered in September. The same poll showed support for the ANC dropping to 37 per cent.

Polling is relatively new in South Africa’s young democracy, and analysts say the numbers should be approached with caution. But they underscore MK’s ability to chip away at the ANC’s support base.

Zuma’s candidacy is being challenged over a criminal conviction and South Africa’s highest court has been asked to hear the matter. But that has simply fuelled his supporters, who have previously rioted on Zuma’s behalf and say the current charges are politically motivated. Some analysts fear Zuma may seek to discredit the electoral process if he is unable to contest.

For now, Zuma, a master tactician who shook off a stream of corruption allegations during his nine years as president, is not only peeling away votes, but also exposing rifts within his former party that analysts say may hasten a post-ANC South Africa.

Already MK’s surge of popularity has increased the likelihood that the ANC’s vote share will fall far enough that it needs to negotiate with bigger rivals that could force trade-offs in policies and appointments. 

“Zuma is waiting to be the kingmaker,” said Mbali Ntuli, chief executive of the Durban-based Ground Work Collective, a civil society organisation. “He wants to put the ANC in a corner where they fight among themselves. He’s banking on the fact that they’re going to be too nervous to get in bed with the Democratic Alliance and they’ll have to use him.”

The business-friendly DA, the main opposition, is seen by many in the country as a party for white South Africans, and influential members within the ANC bitterly oppose making a pact with them. DA leader John Steenhuisen said this week that he was willing to join its ideological rival if the alternative was a “doomsday coalition” between the ANC, Zuma’s party and the radical Economic Freedom Fighters.

The EFF, which has campaigned on sweeping state nationalisation and the expropriation of land without compensation, has cited control of the national treasury as a condition of backing the ANC.

MK’s support may be confined largely to Zuma’s home province, but even a few percentage points could have an outsized impact in what is expected to be a tight-fought election.

Zakhele Ndlovu, a politics lecturer at the University of KwaZulu-Natal, said Zuma’s appeal was primarily based on his image as a defender of the Zulu nation. This also played on a stereotype that many top ANC leaders have been Xhosas, South Africa’s second-biggest ethnic group.

“A lot of Zulus see themselves in him,” Ndlovu said. 

The Zulu heartland of KwaZulu-Natal accounts for a fifth of registered voters in South Africa’s proportional representation system, and includes the port city of Durban.

Jabulani Mkhize, who was one of those out canvassing for Zuma’s party in Durban’s informal settlement of Cato Crest on a hot afternoon this month, said “lives were better” when the former president ran South Africa.

“Zuma was a better president in terms of economic transformation . . . I’m talking about simple things, like even the bread was cheaper,” he said, standing in front of a crumbling home where he unsuccessfully tried to convince the occupant — an unemployed grandmother — to switch away from the ANC. Undeterred, Mkhize moved on to the next house.

Zuma is no stranger to using court battles as political platforms, given his many years of fighting corruption allegations. He served two months of a 15-month sentence in 2021 for contempt of court after failing to attend a corruption inquiry. This triggered the worst civil unrest in post-apartheid South Africa, in which 354 people died.

“He plays the victim card in the same way that so many populists play the victim card around the world,” said Richard Calland, a public law professor at the University of Cape Town, who gave evidence during the Zondo Commission public inquiry that laid bare the systemic looting of the state coffers under Zuma’s presidency.

Zuma has made no secret of his bitterness against his successor Ramaphosa, whose allies helped oust him in 2018, despite having his outstanding sentence commuted by the president in August. This has led some to speculate that Zuma would seek the removal of Ramaphosa as a condition for signing up to any coalition.

“Zuma’s real intention is to harm Ramaphosa,” Calland said, adding that the veteran former president’s actions since he was thrown out of the ANC were simple. “It’s an act of political revenge.”

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