South African court rules Zuma ‘not eligible’ to run for parliament

Constitutional Court says 2021 contempt of court conviction disqualifies former president for May 29 election.

Jacob Zuma and supporters
Former South African president Jacob Zuma now leads the uMkhonto we Sizwe (MK) party [File: Siphiwe Sibeko/Reuters]

South Africa’s former President Jacob Zuma has been barred from running for parliament in next week’s general election.

The Constitutional Court ruled on Monday that Zuma’s 15-month jail sentence for contempt of court in 2021 disqualifies him from standing in the May 29 election. The ruling is likely to increase political tension ahead of the pivotal vote.

The ruling is based on South Africa’s constitution, which prohibits anyone given a prison sentence of 12 months or more from holding a parliamentary seat.

“It is declared that Mr Zuma was convicted of an offence and sentenced to more than 12 months’ imprisonment … and is accordingly not eligible to be a member of, and not qualified to stand for election to, the National Assembly,” the court said.

Zuma, 82, who was forced to quit as president in 2018, has fallen out with the governing African National Congress (ANC) and has been campaigning for the new uMkhonto we Sizwe (MK) party.

Opinion polls suggest the ANC’s majority is at risk after 30 years in power, and the MK presents a threat, especially in Zuma’s home province of KwaZulu-Natal (KZN), where he remains popular.

Zuma’s jailing in 2021 triggered deadly riots in the province, with more than 300 people killed and a wide spate of looting triggered.

President Cyril Ramaphosa pledged in comments to South African media that the authorities will clamp down on any unrest. “I’m not concerned about this instigating violence,” he asserted. “We have rule of law in South Africa that governs us. Once a Constitutional Court has decided, that is it and should there be any threat of violence our security forces are ready.”

‘Face’ of the MK party

Zuma was initially disqualified by the Electoral Commission of South Africa (IEC), which conducts elections in the country. However, he won an appeal to the Electoral Court, which said that since he did not have any appeal options against the contempt ruling, it did not apply in his situation.

The Constitutional Court overturned that on Monday. It said Zuma is not allowed to run for parliament for five years from when his sentence was completed.

However, even with Zuma disqualified from standing, his face will still appear on ballots this month as he is the registered leader of the MK.

Zuma can also appeal the court’s decision, said Al Jazeera’s Fahmida Miller, reporting from Johannesburg after the court ruling, but it remains to be seen whether he will.

“The question is whether or not this makes a very big difference for Zuma specifically. He remains the leader of the MK party … He can still appear on the ballot paper as the face of the party. For many supporters of the MK party, it may not make much of a difference,” Miller said.

“It’s not known whether Jacob Zuma planned to take a seat in parliament,” the correspondent added.

Should Zuma serve as a member of parliament he would “lose the benefits he has as a former president – whether it’s his pension or his security.”

William Gumede, chief of Democracy Works Foundation, believes Zuma’s political strategy is to portray himself as a victim of the country’s judiciary and democratic institutions.

Zuma aims to “make himself a kingmaker in relation to the ANC’s new government and then demand a presidential pardon for being a part of the ANC in a coalition when the ANC gets below 50 percent,” Gumede told Al Jazeera.

The former president run South Africa from 2009 to 2018, but resigned under a cloud of corruption allegations, and his legal troubles from his time in office continue.

He faces corruption charges in a separate case that is expected to go to trial next April. He has pleaded not guilty.

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies