Will Jacob Zuma and his MK party cause an upset in South Africa’s election?

Former South African President Jacob Zuma has endorsed the new uMkhonto weSizwe (MK) party over the ruling ANC [File: Shiraaz Mohamed/Reuters]

Backed by the controversial ex-president, new political party uMkhonto weSizwe is challenging the ruling ANC in Zuma’s home province.

KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa – “We need change and we need change now,” said Princess Nozwe Zulu, sitting in her home in a low-income government housing project in Savannah Park, 18km west of the South African port city of Durban.

“Black people cannot be slaves in their own country forever … that’s why we are voting for the uMkhonto weSizwe (MK) party to drive that change,” the 51-year-old said, declaring her support for the new wildcard political party recently endorsed by controversial former President Jacob Zuma.

Zulu is not just an ordinary voter, but also a lifelong activist who was a municipal councillor for the ruling African National Congress (ANC) between 2011 and 2016.

But in the past few months, she has changed sides, now dedicating her time and resources to wooing would-be voters in KwaZulu-Natal (KZN), Zuma’s home province, to cast their ballots for the MK, which means Spear of the Nation.

“I had been warning my comrades in the ANC that if we continue with arrogance, corruption and lack of accountability, we will lose popular support,” she said. “They did not listen, and look, that is exactly what is happening now.”

uMkhonto weSizwe Party supporters
Supporters of uMkhonto weSizwe, a party that is gaining ground ahead of South Africa’s elections in May [File: Rogan Ward/Reuters]

South Africans go to the polls on May 29 in a crucial election for the ANC, which has been in power since the country’s first post-apartheid elections 30 years ago. Considered the party that liberated South Africa from apartheid, the ANC has recently been shedding support, with polls predicting it could fall below 50 percent vote share for the first time. If it fails to win a majority, opposition parties could pool together to dethrone the ANC.

The MK’s rapid rise since its birth last year could, in particular, damage the ANC in KZN, South Africa’s second most populous province, where polls suggest the Zuma-backed party could emerge as the single biggest winner in the coming election.

Tapping into Zuma’s popularity

Formed in early 2023, the MK came into prominence in December when Zuma announced he would back them instead of the ANC – the party through which he twice became president.

The MK is now tapping into Zuma’s popularity to win more supporters, while also benefitting from resentments among an electorate fed-up with government corruption, high levels of violent crime, electricity blackouts known locally as load-shedding, growing scarcity of piped water, unemployment and poverty under 30 years of ANC rule.

In turning away from the ANC, Zuma said his conscience could not allow him to vote for a party that had become “sell-outs”, and that he would ensure the MK gained enough support to win and change the country’s constitution for the benefit of the struggling Black majority.

South Africa’s constitution is considered one of the most progressive in the world and is among the most cited by top global courts. However, Zuma and the MK argue it was informed by Western laws and is unrepresentative of the people.

“We need to relook at our constitution because it does not benefit us as Blacks,” Zulu told Al Jazeera, echoing the view that the constitution has made it difficult for many Black South Africans to uplift themselves after colonialism, apartheid and racial economic suppression.

Zuma is an enigmatic political figure with a huge following among the Zulu community, South Africa’s largest ethnic group to which he belongs.

His popularity persists even though his road to political power has been paved with countless controversies. He was fired from his position as the country’s deputy president in 2005 after his close associate was found guilty of corruption for, among other things, paying bribes to Zuma. In the same year he was indicted on a charge of rape, but was later acquitted. Also in 2005, he was indicted on charges of fraud, corruption and money laundering.

INTERACTIVE Jacob Zumas scandals-1706684856

Despite these travails, Zuma still managed to get elected ANC leader in 2007 and South Africa’s president in 2009 and 2014.

While in power, he was again implicated by corruption allegations and accusations related to the plundering of state funds. And after he was forced out in 2018, he refused to participate in a commission of inquiry into corruption, even after summons were served.

He was sentenced to 15 months in jail and when police fetched him from his home in July 2021, some parts of South Africa erupted into a week-long frenzy of violence and looting, resulting in the deaths of more than 350 people and huge loss to the economy.

Nine wasted years

Detractors see Zuma’s time in power as “nine wasted years” where the economy tanked and fraud and corruption became endemic.

But he is back in the political limelight with the MK, despite South Africa’s electoral commission announcing last month that he was not eligible to stand for elections due to the contempt of court conviction – a ruling the MK has since appealed.

Despite his many critics, those who support Zuma are often happy to follow the former president’s lead.

Zulu, for one, said she took her cue from Zuma and abandoned the ANC when he announced he would back the MK. She is now firmly entrenched in the new party.

But she says she was disillusioned with the ANC even before that, calling out corruption and the lack of benefits for Black South Africans.

Asked why Zuma did not improve things during his two terms leading the country, Zulu said that even as president “Zuma was prevented from touching the white privileges by this very constitution which is praised by the West”, adding that changing the constitution would “ensure that the minerals and wealth of this country benefits us”.
Supporters of uMkhonto weSizw
The uMkhonto weSizwe party wants to change South Africa’s constitution if it wins in elections [File: Rogan Ward/Reuters]

As a businesswoman, Zulu admitted that she previously benefitted from state tenders under the ANC, although she refused to divulge the nature of the contracts she received. Like her, many others who benefitted during Zuma’s tenure may not have later on.

“There are many people who were getting government contracts during Zuma’s era and now their taps have dried up and they are throwing their weight behind the MK party in the hope that if it wins, they will regain their leverage,” said Zakhele Ndlovu, an independent political analyst and senior lecturer at the University of KwaZulu-Natal, commenting on the new party’s popularity.

‘The ANC has failed us’

However, some voters who were committed to the ANC are now throwing their weight behind the MK.

Nelly Msomi, 38, hails from the rural area of Tafelkop, southwest of Durban. The former administrative clerk at the national rail company told Al Jazeera she had moved on from the ANC.

Msomi, her husband and some friends were participating in local MK electioneering, where a motorcade of party supporters drove from one area to another, displaying flags and wooing supporters to join in and vote for them.

“We have no jobs, we have no water, we have no electricity,” she said in a Ford Ranger pick-up truck that was part of the MK convoy. “The ANC has completely failed us. Even when they have projects in our communities, only connected people and family members of councillors and their girlfriends’ benefits.”

Although the MK draws most of its support from the ANC voter base, its presence is being felt by other political parties such as the Inkatha Freedom Party (IFP), a traditionalist Zulu nationalist party and key opposition to the ANC in KZN, and the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF), which was formed by a Julius Malema, a popular former ANC youth leader.

Taxi fleet owner Nhlanhla Xulu, 40, is a former IFP activist who is now a leading MK organiser from Felekisi, a semi-urban village about 37km south of Durban.

All his vehicles, including minibus taxis, are emblazoned in the MK’s colours – green, yellow and black. He says even the youth are on board. “Wearing MK garb has become a fashion statement to young people who are sick of the status quo.”

Xulu said the emergence of Zuma in the MK re-ignited his enthusiasm for politics.

“Myself, like many people I know, was planning not to vote but when Zuma showed up and made promises, I knew that I had a new political home,” he said.

“Now, our campaign as MK in this region is going very well and people are eager to join and vote for the MK party. Come May 29 [election day] MK will surprise many people.”

‘Huge damage’

But not everyone is charmed by MK. Some voters said they would stick with their old parties. “I don’t follow individuals [like Zuma]. I follow a party based on principle. I will vote for the ANC, like I always do” said Andile Sibiya, 28, as he watched the MK campaign convoy pass his home in KwaDabeka, west of Durban.

Just over 27 million South Africans have registered to vote in the upcoming polls. Gauteng, the country’s most populous province with more than seven million registered voters, and KwaZulu-Natal, with 5.7 million voters, are the main battlegrounds.

An uMkhonto weSizwe Party branded t-shirt
A stall sells an uMkhonto weSizwe party branded T-shirt with an image of former South African President Jacob Zuma with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Durban, South Africa [File: Rogan Ward/Reuters]

Last month, a survey of voters conducted by the Brenthurst Foundation, a Johannesburg-based think tank, indicated that nationally the ANC’s support has fallen to 39 percent, with the closest opposition, the Democratic Alliance (DA), gaining ground with 27 percent.

The same survey found that in KZN, Zuma’s MK party is set to be the largest, with 25 percent of the vote. The ANC (20 percent), DA (19 percent) and IFP (19 percent) are running neck and neck and a coalition provincial government is likely to govern the province.

The poll also suggested a national coalition government is highly likely after the general election.

“There is no doubt that the MK party is going to do a huge damage to the ANC, especially in KZN, where the ANC leadership is weak and is perceived to be arrogant,” said political analyst Ndlovu.

Beyond KZN, he said “its success will be very limited”, attributing this to “Zulu ethnic nationalism” which was more of a driver of support in Zuma’s home province.

But Ndlovu also acknowledged the former president’s popularity as a motivator in itself: “Many people are fed up with the high levels of crime, corruption and poverty and joblessness, and they see Zuma as their spiritual leader or Messiah,” he said.



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