South Africa top court hears case questioning Zuma’s electoral eligibility

Ex-president could be disqualified from running in the most competitive polls in post-apartheid history on May 29.

Former South African President Jacob Zuma and member of the newly formed opposition party uMkhonto we Sizwe (MK) Party waves to supporters during an election rally outside his homestead in Nkandla, KwaZulu-Natal on April 25, 2024. (Photo by Phill Magakoe / AFP)
Former South African President Jacob Zuma and a member of the newly formed opposition party uMkhonto we Sizwe (MK) waves to supporters during an election rally outside his homestead in KwaZulu-Natal [File: Phill Magakoe/AFP]

South Africa’s Constitutional Court will decide on an appeal questioning former President Jacob Zuma’s eligibility to run in this month’s election, a race that could tilt the balance of the parliament and determine the country’s next leader.

The court in Johannesburg is on Friday hearing the appeal filed by the country’s election body after a lower court ruled that Zuma could run for office.

Earlier, the Independent Electoral Commission (IEC), barred Zuma from contesting the May 29 polls.

Zuma, 82, is fronting a new opposition party that has become a potential disrupter in the general election.

While his party, uMkhonto weSizwe (MK), is not expected to win enough votes to return the former leader to the presidency, it could cut into the vote share of the dominant governing African National Congress (ANC) party, and determine who will be the country’s next leader.

In the South African constitution, the president is elected by members of parliament.

The IEC had argued that the corruption-tainted politician should be barred from the race because of a 2021 contempt of court conviction.

Threat of violence

The eligibility case against Zuma revolves around the interpretation of a constitutional norm barring anyone sentenced to more than 12 months’ imprisonment from serving in parliament.

The ban lapses five years after the sentence is completed.

The IEC argued the provision applies to Zuma. But Zuma’s lawyers said it does not apply to the former leader, because his sentence was shortened.

Now it is up to the Constitutional Court to decide on the case, which experts say could take days.

The top court is the same body that in 2021 sentenced Zuma to 15 months in prison after he refused to testify to a panel investigating financial corruption and cronyism during his presidency. The head of that panel is now the court’s chief justice.

In their filings, Zuma’s lawyers argued that he and another five judges who sat on the bench that convicted their client should recuse themselves as “tainted by bias”.

Were that to happen, the court would not have enough members left to hear the case.

Coming only weeks before what is expected to be the most competitive vote since the advent of democracy in 1994, the case has made some observers nervous.

Zuma’s jailing in 2021 triggered a wave of unrest, riots and looting that left more than 350 people dead.

There are fears, however, of a repeat of the violence, with supporters of the former leader accusing the court of being partisan.

“Zuma’s supporters have threatened violence again this year should things not go their way,” Zakhele Ndlovu, a politics lecturer at the University of KwaZulu-Natal, told the AFP news agency.

Aside from the disqualification case, Zuma’s MK party is also under police investigation over allegations that it forged supporters’ signatures to register for the upcoming national elections.

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies