Jacob Zuma returns to shake up South African election

The former president is prominent in a new left-wing party which could reshape the political landscape

Jacob Zuma, the former South African president accused of widespread corruption and graft, has re-emerged on the country’s political stage to contest its general election next month.

Removed from power over six years ago by the African National Congress, Zuma has become the most prominent face of a new left-wing party that is threatening to reshape South Africa’s political landscape after the May 29th poll.

Since his recall from office, Zuma has kept himself occupied by taking various legal actions to avoid facing trial on charges that he took bribes from a French arms company in 1999 while the country’s deputy president.

He has also been implicated in facilitating corruption at state-run enterprises during his nine years as president by whistleblowers at a public sector inquiry. Zuma denies the allegations.


Despite his legal woes, the 82-year-old was unveiled in December as one of the main leaders of a populist political movement, the uMkhonto weSizwe (MK) Party, and within months, voter surveys indicated it could win up to 13 per cent of the ballot nationally.

In the months since then he has urged voters to ditch his former party for the MK at the polls, which he maintains will save the country from the ANC’s ruinous handling of the economy, overseen by his successor, President Cyril Ramaphosa. In March Zuma suffered a setback when the electoral commission barred him from contesting the election as a candidate over a contempt of court conviction he received in June 2021.

However, an electoral court subsequently overturned this, which means Zuma could be MK’s leading candidate for parliament. A poll conducted in April by the Social Research Foundation (SRF) found that MK was benefiting from a fall in support for the ANC, which plummeted to just 37 per cent support from the 1,835 people it interviewed.

If the poll is accurate, MK could become the third or fourth most popular party behind the ANC and the Democratic Alliance (DA), placing it in a position of power after an election most people expect will not see an outright winner. The SRF survey also puts voter support for the radial left-wing Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF), led by former ANC youth leader Julius Malema, at 11 per cent. Senior ANC leaders have declined to say which parties they could work with, saying they intend to win the election outright and govern alone.

But an idea that has gained traction since the survey’s release is that MK and the EFF could form a united left-wing bloc to hold the balance of power, were the ANC’s support to collapse next month in line with predictions.

The thinking is that a weakened ANC may find itself compelled to form a minority government with the EFF and MK – even though ideologically they have little in common – to stay in government.

South Africa’s centrist opposition parties are also positioning themselves to take advantage of a decline in the ANC’s electoral fortunes, sensing support for the movement is at a tipping point that will take it below the 50 per cent-plus one vote threshold it needs to rule alone.

Last July the DA joined a 10-party coalition, the Multi-Party Charter, to try to oust the ANC. The group also says it wants to keep the EFF out of power because of what it describes as its extreme economic and political policies.

DA leader John Steenhuisen told supporters at the launch of the group’s Rescue South Africa Tour in early April that were the ANC, EFF and MK to form a coalition government it would be disastrous for South Africans. “Under the ‘Doomsday Coalition’ there is a future, mark my words democrats, where South Africa will rapidly descend into chaos [as] we see in other countries that have adopted radical policies,” he said.

The EFF and MK both support policies such as the expropriation of land without compensation and the nationalisation of mines. In addition, they blame a concentration of power among white elites for much of South Africa’s economic woes.

Earlier this month Malema positioned the EFF as “kingmakers” in the post-election environment, saying the EFF would collaborate with any rival that backed its policies to form a government, and that the MK would be a natural partner.

Gareth Newham, a senior political analyst at South Africa’s Institute for Security Studies, said it was difficult to predict the election outcome. But he said that as long as Ramaphosa remained ANC leader, he could not see the ruling party turning to the EFF and MK to form a government.

“The MK and the EFF are sworn enemies of the Ramaphosa faction in the ANC, and it currently dominates the party and will continue to after election, so I just don’t see it happening,” he said. If the ANC’s support drops below 40 per cent after the ballots are counted, he believes a more likely scenario is it will go into a coalition with the DA.

“I believe there have been informal discussions between senior members of the two parties that are largely around keeping the EFF and MK out [of government],” he said.

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