South Africa’s former president Jacob Zuma staged a surprise comeback at the head of an upstart party that is only a few months old but already the country’s third largest. Zuma is 82, he was banned from standing in this week’s general election because of a contempt conviction and his former rule is synonymous with the capture of the state by corrupt interests.
But at the reins of uMkhonto weSizwe (MK), a party founded barely eight months ago, he has taken a huge chunk out of the once untouchable ANC’s majority and stormed his home province. On Friday afternoon, with 60% of the votes counted, Zuma’s MK was leading the ANC by 43% to 18 in the electoral battle ground province of KwaZulu-Natal (KZN), a huge pool of votes.
In the national race, the newcomers had more than 12%, putting them in third behind the ANC, whose vote collapsed from more than 57% in 2019 to 42% on Wednesday, and the centre-right Democratic Alliance (DA).
KZN, home to South Africa’s largest port and second largest city Durban, has previously always been run by the ANC or the Zulu nationalist Inkatha Freedom Party (IFP).
So what explains the sudden turnaround?
“As anticipated, the MK has eaten into the ANC’s vote and dented into the IFP vote as well,” said Siphamandla Zondi, a politics professor at the University of Johannesburg. KwaZulu-Natal province, like most of the country has been affected by crippling power cuts, disruptions to water infrastructure and municipal mismanagement.
In addition, the ANC’s provincial leadership has been plagued with infighting and factionalism. Earlier this month the ANC Veterans League warned that “weak” leadership in the province may cost the party votes.
“Losing votes in KZN definitely affected the ANC nationally significantly because of the make up of the province and the population,” said Sihawukele Ngubane, African Languages professor at the University of Kwa Zulu-Natal (UKZN)
But Lubna Nadvi, a political analyst and UKZN politics lecturer, told AFP the ANC’s upset in KZN was not solely to blame for it losing major ground nationally. “The fact that it’s fallen below 50% is because of its problematic performance in all of the different areas it has been governing,” she said.
Disillusioned KZN voters took action in groves because they were primarily seeking a change in leadership, according to analysts. KZN voters, Nadvi said, “are largely gravitating towards what they know which is the personality and image of Jacob Zuma.”
The 82-year-old ex-leader announced in December he would campaign for the MK and was subsequently suspended by his former political home, the ANC. In the face of scandals and graft allegations, the charismatic Zuma remains popular particularly among the country’s more than 10mn fellow Zulus.
“This raises questions around ‘do these voters not know that Zuma has been implicated in these things?’ or that they do know but prefer to ignore it and still vote for him?” Nadvi said. Running for general elections for the first time, there were many unknowns about the MK party. No candidate for provincial premier or local leadership has been suggested in the event of it garnering control over KZN, and very little is known about the party’s structure.
“MK is an untested entity when it comes to governance ... there is no track record,” Nadvi said.