Why Zuma’s exclusion from South Africa elections won’t derail his support | Elections News

Johannesburg, South Africa – After weeks of legal wrangling and rulings by the country’s electoral commission and court, South Africa’s highest court on Monday banned controversial former president Jacob Zuma from becoming a member of parliament.

The Constitutional Court’s decision gives finality to the matter, although experts say it will not hinder Zuma’s political life, as the former leader remains the face of his party, which is enough to attract the support of potential voters.

Zuma, who now leads the new party uMkhonto we Sizwe (MK) after a political clash with the ruling African National Congress (ANC), has been a thorn in the side of his former party ahead of next week’s general election.

The 82-year-old former statesman had his eyes set on returning to Parliament and becoming president again on an MK ticket after falling out with his successor, current President Cyril Ramaphosa.

But Zuma’s 15-month prison sentence for contempt of court in 2021 has been a stumbling block for him and a decision by South Africa’s Electoral Commission (IEC) disqualified him from taking a seat in parliament.

Zuma appealed the IEC’s decision and the Electoral Tribunal, a judicial body meant to resolve electoral disputes, gave him the green light to run as a candidate.

The case was eventually heard by the Constitutional Court, which ruled that Zuma could not run for parliament for five years after he completed his prison sentence.

Responding to the ruling, the Electoral Commission took note of the Constitutional Court’s decision and said Zuma, as leader of MK, would continue to be the face of the party at the polls. In South Africa, electoral ballots bear the name and symbol of a political party next to the face of its leader.

Zuma is the “political capital”

Political analyst Ongama Mtimka told Al Jazeera that the court ruling would not deter Zuma’s loyal supporters from voting for MK.

“Zuma is the only political capital that the MK party has. People will vote for the MK party because it is the face of the party,” he stated.

Zuma relies on populist policies to attract support, particularly in his home province of KwaZulu-Natal, where he is making progress. He wants the return of the death penalty and has sought to criminalize teen pregnancy.

Jacob Zuma and his followers
Jacob Zuma arrives before the launch of his political party’s uMkhonto we Sizwe election manifesto ahead of the May 29 general election, at a rally in Soweto, South Africa (Siphiwe Sibeko/Reuters)

Mtimka described the MK party as a “vehicle for Zuma’s anger against the ANC”, adding that “people who were going to vote for Zuma because of their anger at the ANC and the system will continue to vote for the MK party”.

The ANC has been losing support in recent years, and polls predict it will fail to win a majority for the first time since apartheid ended in 1994, potentially forcing it to govern as part of a coalition.

Zuma has been taking advantage of discontent with the ruling party and his supporters have followed him.

The deputy said the Constitutional Court’s decision would not affect the party’s performance in the imminent elections.

“The sentence does not deter us from what we want to achieve. President Zuma is on the ballot as the face of the uMkhonto we Sizwe Party because he is the president of the party,” MK party spokesperson Nhlamulo Ndlela told Al Jazeera.

Zuma ‘does not respect trials’

Outside the court on Monday, Zuma supporters held banners with his name and chanted songs in his praise.

“We are disappointed by the ruling, but Jacob Zuma is still the leader of the MK party and will be in the election,” MK party secretary Sihle Ngubane told supporters.

Zuma, who was president since 2009, was removed from office in 2018 and later sentenced by the Constitutional Court for contempt of court after refusing to testify at an investigation into allegations against him of corruption and state capture.

The Constitution prohibits anyone sentenced to more than 12 months in prison from standing in elections, which is what the court cited in its ruling on Monday.

“It is a great moment in terms of demanding the rule of law,” said Lawson Naidoo, executive secretary of the Council for the Advancement of the South African Constitution (CASAC), a non-governmental organization whose aim is to promote constitutionalism.

He said the country needed clarification on Zuma’s eligibility before the May 29 election.

Jacob Zuma
Zuma addresses supporters at his home in Nkandla, KwaZulu-Natal Natal province, in July 2021 (File: Shiraaz Mohamed/AP)

Zuma has faced numerous legal battles, before, during and after his term.

In the past, he has unsuccessfully sought the overturning of court rulings with which he disagreed.

“We don’t know if Zuma will respect the court order because we know from previous experience that he doesn’t respect sentences against him,” Naidoo said.

“But I’m not sure there’s anywhere to go with this. “It was a unanimous ruling,” he added.

‘Keep calm’

During hearings into his electoral eligibility, Zuma’s legal team argued that six Constitutional Court judges should recuse themselves because they were part of the decision to sentence him to prison for contempt of court. They argued that Zuma would be harmed by his alleged bias. The recusal appeal was dismissed.

During the election campaign, Zuma insulted the Constitutional Court and promised to change the Constitution if his party was elected.

MK has said that if it wins a two-thirds majority – a threshold necessary to change the Constitution – it would seek to change the political system from a constitutional democracy to a parliamentary democracy. This would mean that the political party with a parliamentary majority determines the laws and would not be subject to the current support of the State.

The ANC led the process of promulgating the current Constitution in 1996, after South Africa overcame decades of apartheid. It has been widely described as one of the most progressive in the world, with checks and balances to prevent abuse of executive authority.

However, at a rally on Saturday before the court ruling, Zuma called for a return to traditional African law, without clarifying what that would mean. He said the current constitutional system does not benefit Africans.

Echoing Zuma’s sentiments, MK party spokesman Ndlela said after the ruling that Constitutional Court judges – who are appointed by the president on the recommendation of a Judicial Service Commission – are “unelected people who had too much power”.

Ndlela, however, called on Zuma’s supporters to “remain calm” following the sentencing.

In 2021, Zuma’s prison sentence sparked deadly riots and caused unprecedented destruction after days of looting.

Looters in South Africa
In July 2021, riots broke out in KwaZulu-Natal following Zuma’s imprisonment (File: Andre Swart/AP)

Ebrahim Fakir, Director of Programs at the Auwal Socio-economic Research Institute (ASRI), said Zuma has systematically undermined the rule of law and state institutions since the end of his presidency.

“The game plan after his presidency was to undermine and destabilize the system to protect himself and those around him, who were beneficiaries of corrupt state capture and who are at risk of prosecution,” he said.

‘Lost address’

Zuma will face a corruption trial next April after trying to avoid prosecution for almost two decades. He has pleaded not guilty.

Many of his key supporters and MK party candidates face accusations of corruption and state capture.

“These are people who support Zuma to secure immunity for their own corruption and their role in state capture,” Fakir said.

While the ANC has accused Zuma and his supporters of causing divisions within the ruling party, since endorsing MK in December 2023, Zuma has accused the ANC government of failing to improve the lives of South Africans.

“Our current leaders have lost their way, so it would be remiss of us not to tell them that we have to fix things,” Zuma told thousands of his supporters gathered Saturday.

However, Fakir said Zuma is falsely lobbying for support on the grounds that it would improve the country, despite having governed through the very system he is now criticizing.

“No one asks why, during the years he was president, he didn’t make a difference,” Fakir said.

At least three polls suggest the MK party would do well in KwaZulu-Natal, where it attempted to cannibalize ANC support.

Another survey by the Social Research Foundation think tank noted that the MK party could be among the top five political parties in terms of electoral support nationally.

Current polls put the ANC below 50 percent, with the official opposition Democratic Alliance (DA) the second largest party.