Can Jacob Zuma emerge as kingmaker in South Africa’s election?

Zuma’s new MK party is gaining in polls while ANC support slips. But is the former president still as influential outside the ruling party?

Jacob Zuma
Former South African president Jacob Zuma is causing concern for the governing ANC party this election cycle [Esa Alexander/Reuters]

KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa – Jacob Gedleyihlekisa Zuma is a divisive figure. For some South Africans, the controversial former president is a liberator and saviour for millions of poor people. For others, he is corrupt and ill-fit to lead.

Despite having been at the forefront of some of the worst corruption and mismanagement scandals in post-apartheid history, the 82-year-old has returned to the political spotlight time and again.

Now, ahead of general elections on May 29, Zuma has turned his back on the African National Congress (ANC) – the party that made him a two-time president between 2009 and 2018 – in favour of newcomers, uMkhonto weSizwe (MK), that seek to challenge the governing party’s hold on power.

Multiple polls have predicted the ANC will lose its parliamentary majority for the first time since the fall of apartheid in 1994, and likely have to rule as part of a coalition.

Meanwhile, the MK has been gaining in the polls, even threatening to take voters from other opposition parties. This has led some analysts to suggest Zuma may be in a position to be kingmaker – with the MK possibly becoming the majority party in his home province of KwaZulu-Natal (KZN).

Political commentator Justice Malala, writing in a column last month, said “Zuma has been winning the public relations war against the ANC at every turn”, and argued that the MK’s dominance in KZN may put the former leader in a kingmaker position in national coalition talks.

If the ANC does as poorly as expected, Malala argued, it may have to form a coalition with the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) and the MK, which could lead Zuma to once again take on an influential role in government.

Other analysts echo similar sentiments. Some, however, are less convinced that the former leader has enough widespread support.

“[Zuma] is a powerful brand and has impact and influence because he was in the ANC for so long,” independent political analyst Asanda Ngoasheng told Al Jazeera.

“Many will be shocked at how the power diminishes the minute you are no longer in the ANC.”

A member of the uMkhonto we Sizwe (MK) security personnel gestures outside of the Johannesburg High Court ahead of the private prosecution trial, where former South African President Jacob Zuma is suing South African President Cyril Ramaphosa over a leaked medical report linked to a 1990s arms corruption trial, in Johannesburg on April 11, 2024. (Photo by EMMANUEL CROSET / AFP)
Jacob Zuma has backed the uMkhonto weSizwe (MK) party in the 2024 polls [File: Emmanuel Croset/AFP]

Zuma, who resigned as president in 2018 after corruption allegations and was replaced by current President Cyril Ramaphosa, remained a loyal member of the ANC until December 2023 when he declared he would back the MK instead of the ANC in the 2024 polls.

Zuma has since become the face of the MK, with the party using his mass popularity to win more voters.

Still, many question how much practical power and influence Zuma and the MK have.

MK ‘won’t break the ANC’

“The political landscape in South Africa is undergoing significant shifts,” market research firm Ipsos said in a recent report.

The latest Ipsos poll, conducted through face-to-face interviews across all nine provinces in March and April, found that the ANC is losing support (polling at 40 percent, down from 43 percent six months ago), while Zuma’s party is on the rise, even though its vote share is still small.

The MK is also taking voters from other main opposition parties, the EFF and the Inkatha Freedom Party (IFP), the latter of which has traditionally been a strong contender in KZN.

“The emergence of MK has halted the advances made by the EFF in recent years, particularly in KwaZulu-Natal, with some former EFF supporters migrating to the new party that polled at just over 8%,” said Ipsos.

“As the campaign enters its final weeks, uncertainty is highest in KwaZulu-Natal, where almost a fifth of the electorate has not yet decided which party or candidate they will vote for,” Ipsos added.

Several ANC insiders Al Jazeera spoke to said they know the MK is making serious inroads in KZN, and coupled with the strong rural vote that the IFP has historically won there, they do face an “uphill” battle.

They were also aware the Zuma factor was going to eat into the ANC’s voter share. Nevertheless, they continue to actively campaign in the province, even sending President Ramaphosa to campaign there in late April.

“The MK party is potentially a threat to the ANC but I don’t think it’s necessarily the threat to the size or magnitude that everyone is making it out to be,” Ngoasheng told Al Jazeera.

“The ANC has had multiple political parties and breakaway parties out of it; the Pan Africanist Congress in the 1960s is one of the oldest breakaway parties; then there was Julius Malema’s Economic Freedom Fighters.”

The analyst argued therefore that it was “not the first time that someone has gone off to start their own political party and so, like all the others, Zuma will pull some support from the ANC but it won’t be the thing that breaks the ANC”.

What does Zuma want?

Many ask the question, “What does Zuma want?”, wondering why a former president with lifetime benefits from the state would be interested in contesting an election and going up against his political home of more than 60 years. The answer to that has its roots in Zuma’s home province.

KZN has more than 5.7 million registered voters and is where Zuma’s political base is. Gauteng and KZN, with 23.6 percent and 20.7 percent of the electorate, respectively, will, according to political analysts and pollsters, once again be the key provinces to watch in this election.

Additionally, the province is a strategic one for Zuma as some analysts say he may be seeking to use it to protect his legacy and ensure his continued political influence in the country.

Although the ANC has won KZN in the last four elections, the kind of unpredictability that exists this year harkens back to the first democratic elections when the IFP and ANC were both vying for control.

Inkatha Freedom Party supporters in the 1990s
Inkatha Freedom Party supporters ahead of South Africa’s first democratic elections in 1993 [Reuters]

During the 1990s, political violence between the IFP and ANC supporters engulfed the province and the IFP initially refused to participate in the 1994 elections. Only at the last minute did they decide to contest, eventually winning KZN.

The lingering effects of this violence still impact the province today, with tensions occasionally resurfacing between the two parties.

“Those moments of uncertainty of 1994 … are coming back to the fray this time around KZN,” said Sanusha Naidu, a political analyst from the Institute for Global Dialogue.

“You have instability and unpredictability and that is why we cannot predict this election and at the end of the day, whatever happens at the provincial level will have dire consequences and significant implications for the way the national coalition and architecture will be defined.”

Naidu said KZN is almost like a problem child-problem province for the ANC.

“In the 1990s, Zuma was pivotal to those negotiations with the Inkatha Freedom Party, IFP, and he was, in some ways, seen as the person who played a significant role in negotiating and an incredible and important interlocker for the ANC.”

This election, Zuma and his MK supporters say they have “unfinished business” and want to return to power to ensure delivery for the poorest of the poor in the country.

However, despite much speculation about the MK’s potential impact in the polls, it remains to be seen how the party will fare. Some analysts told Al Jazeera it is simply too difficult to call at this stage.

Cyril Ramaphosa and Jacob Zuma
President Cyril Ramaphosa, left, and Zuma are on opposite sides in this election [File: Mike Hutchings/Reuters]

But what is clear is that the rift between Zuma and the ANC will not be repaired overnight. MK members told Al Jazeera they feel Zuma has been treated “badly and disrespected” by the ANC and this is likely to play a role in how MK will handle any coalition talks.

MK members told Al Jazeera it was too soon to talk about coalition talks as they were focused on winning KZN. However, they did acknowledge that Zuma’s treatment by the ANC would influence their approach.

‘The ANC’s days are numbered’

Among voters in KZN, Zuma maintains a strong and loyal support base of people who also share dissatisfaction with the ANC.

Pensioner Michael Nxasana, 63, said issues like the constant water cuts, potholes and corruption led him to join the MK, which he believes offers solutions as they prioritise service delivery and accountability.

“The ANC comrades are thieves, they must go, there is too much corruption, they must be voted out and we are going to show the ANC. Those ones they can forget about winning the election,” he told Al Jazeera in the city of Pietermaritzburg.

“Zuma is a good man and he’s disciplined and we are disciplined; we know he wasn’t perfect but who is? The ANC’s days are numbered. JZ [Jacob Zuma] loves our people and we are his people … Everyone here is going to vote for the MK.”

A 2014 ANC election billboard
In a picture taken before the 2014 elections, then-President Zuma appears on an ANC billboard in KZN [Rogan Ward/Reuters]

Although Zuma is “portrayed in a very negative way”, said Faizel Moosa, an MK member in the Western Cape, “if we look at the facts, Comrade Zuma, President Zuma did quite a lot for South Africa”.

“He was not allowed to complete what he wanted to do and he is now wanting to come back and we support him,” Moosa said. “Some call it wasted years but we don’t think it was wasted at all and was productive and we want to complete what he started.”

Analyst Ngoasheng, however, said the facts do not support Moosa’s claims.

“He has a track record as having been the one president of the country who presided over wide-scale looting and what a lot of his supporters do not realise is that a lot of the current struggles are because of his widespread looting, or the challenges of blackouts are because of the looting.

“They are not linking all of this to our current state in the country.”

Ngoasheng is not convinced Zuma will be good for South Africa and believes his leadership style is outdated and regressive, particularly when it comes to gender equality and societal progress.

She fears Zuma’s tendency to play the victim – as he has done numerous times since being fired as deputy president under President Thabo Mbeki in 2005 – may hinder the country’s advancement and perpetuate harmful ideologies.

“He gets away with the victim mentality and blames Ramaphosa for his own failings and the ANC has shot itself in the foot; they supported him for so long, no matter how unethical or corrupt he was,” Ngoasheng added.

Now, with Zuma poised to play a big role in yet another election cycle, his supporters are with him all the way, while those reeling from the effects of his last term in office are nervous at the prospect of having him in a position of power yet again.

Source: Al Jazeera