Why Zuma being barred from South Africa election won’t derail his support

Constitutional Court said ex-president is ‘not eligible’ to run for parliament over 2021 contempt of court conviction.

Jacob Zuma
Former South African President Jacob Zuma has been barred from running for parliament in next week’s general election [Jerome Delay/AP]

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

The Constitutional Court’s decision brings finality to the matter, however, experts have said it will not hamper Zuma’s political life, as the former leader is still the face of his party, which is enough to attract support from potential voters.

Zuma, who now leads the new uMkhonto we Sizwe (MK) party after a political fallout with the governing African National Congress (ANC), has been a thorn in the side of his former party before the general elections next week.

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

But Zuma’s 15-month jail sentence for contempt of court in 2021 has been a roadblock for him and an Electoral Commission of South Africa (IEC) decision disqualified him from holding a seat in parliament.

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

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

Responding to the judgement, the Electoral Commission noted the Constitutional Court decision and said that Zuma, as leader of the MK, would remain the face of the party on the ballot. In South Africa, ballot sheets bear the name and symbol of a political party alongside its leader’s face.

Zuma is ‘political capital’

Political analyst Ongama Mtimka told Al Jazeera the court judgement would not sway Zuma’s loyal supporters away from voting for the MK.

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

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

Jacob Zuma and supporters
Jacob Zuma arrives before the launch of the election manifesto of his political party, uMkhonto we Sizwe, before 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 rage against the ANC”, adding that “people who were going to vote for Zuma because of their anger with the ANC and the system will still vote for the MK party.”

The ANC has been losing support in recent years, with polls predicting that it will fail to win a majority for the first time since apartheid ended in 1994, which may force it to rule as part of a coalition.

Zuma has been leveraging the dissatisfaction with the governing party, and his supporters have followed him.

The MK said the Constitutional Court decision would not affect the party’s performance in the looming polls.

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

Zuma ‘doesn’t respect judgments’

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

“We are disappointed by the judgement, but Jacob Zuma remains the leader of the MK party and will be on the ballot,” MK party secretary Sihle Ngubane told supporters.

Zuma, who was president from 2009, was removed from office in 2018 and later sentenced by the Constitutional Court for contempt of court after refusing to give evidence in an inquiry investigating allegations against him of corruption and state capture.

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

“It is a big moment in terms of the vindication of the rule of law,” said Lawson Naidoo, executive secretary of the Council for the Advancement of the South African Constitution (CASAC), a non-governmental organisation aimed at promoting constitutionalism.

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

Jacob Zuma
Zuma addresses his 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 time in office.

In the past, he has unsuccessfully applied for a rescission of court judgements he disagreed with.

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

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

‘Remain calm’

During the hearings on his electoral eligibility, Zuma’s legal team argued that six Constitutional Court justices should recuse themselves because they were part of the decision to sentence him to jail for contempt of court. They argued that Zuma would be prejudiced by their purported bias. The recusal application was dismissed.

On the election campaign trail, Zuma has insulted the Constitutional Court and promised to change the Constitution if his party were elected.

The MK has said that if it gets a two-thirds majority – a threshold needed 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 laws and would not be subjected to the current support of the state.

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

However, in a rally on Saturday preceding the court judgement, Zuma called for a return to African traditional law, without clarifying what that would mean. He said the current Constitutional system was not serving Africans.

Echoing Zuma’s sentiments, MK party spokesperson Ndlela said after the judgement that the Constitutional Court justices – 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 judgement.

In 2021, Zuma’s jail sentence prompted deadly riots and caused unprecedented destruction following days of looting.

Looters in South Africa
In July 2021, riots broke out in KwaZulu-Natal following the imprisonment of Zuma [File: Andre Swart/AP]

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

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

‘Lost direction’

Zuma is due to face a corruption trial next April after seeking to avoid prosecution for almost two decades. He has pleaded innocence.

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

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

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

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

However, Fakir said Zuma disingenuously lobbies for support on the basis that he would improve the country, despite having ruled via the same system he now criticises.

“No one is asking why, in the years he was president, he did not make a difference,” Fakir said.

At least three polls suggest that the MK party would perform well in KwaZulu-Natal, where it sought to cannibalise ANC support.

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

Current polling puts the ANC at below 50 percent with the official opposition Democratic Alliance (DA) as the second-largest party.

Source: Al Jazeera