South Africa

Jacob Zuma has South Africa’s fate in his hands

Jacob Zuma, who led South Africa for almost nine scandal-tainted years before being ousted by the governing African National Congress, may now play a major role in the country’s political future.

Six years after being pushed from office, Zuma successfully upstaged his successor, Cyril Ramaphosa, in national elections this week, eating into ANC’s support with his new uMkhonto weSizwe Party.

The 82-year-old was feted by jubilant supporters as he walked into the electoral results center north of Johannesburg late Saturday, telling the audience his party’s rise shows “how people are angry.”

President Ramaphosa, 71, has remained out of the public eye and deep in talks since the ANC suffered its worst election result in three decades and lost its parliamentary majority, scraping just over 40% of the vote.

Zuma’s MKP seized 14.6% just five months after its launch and wrested control of his home province, KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa’s second-most populous.

Ramaphosa-led ANC’s “time is up, they can’t stop this momentum,” Zuma said during campaigning last month. “The time has come for a Black person to rise up, to partake in what is theirs.”

Zuma is now a kingmaker, having brought the ANC to its knees. For the first time, the ANC needs a coalition to govern, but a tie-up with Zuma’s party comes at a steep price—he has one condition to engage with the ANC—that Ramaphosa gives up the reins as leader of the organization.

“This is about a man who has been, who feels that he hasn’t been respected as an elder,” political analyst Sanisha Naidu said.

Zuma’s party is willing to work with the ANC so long as it has “nothing to do with Ramaphosa,” MKP spokesperson Nhlamulo Ndhlela said without giving further details.

That means Ramaphosa is likely to be pushed into the arms of the main opposition Democratic Alliance, a tie-up favored by investors but which faces substantial headwinds within the ANC as well.

It’s a far cry from 2012 when Zuma brought Ramaphosa in from the political wilderness. More than a decade later, Zuma wants to see him ousted despite denying he has a personal vendetta against his former protege and successor.

His ANC critics say Zuma, a former intelligence chief and amateur chess player, was quietly building up support for his new party within the ANC party’s provincial branch in KwaZulu-Natal right up to the vote, giving him effective shadow control and allowing him the surprise sweeping victory there.

Zuma’s rise is also a mark of how far the ANC has fallen. Voters took their grievances to the ballot box after years of economic mismanagement and corruption damaged water and power supplies and with unemployment running above 30%.

They opted for a range of opposition parties, including the populist Economic Freedom Fighters and Zuma’s MKP, which the ANC concedes it vastly underestimated.

“I think we did not really estimate the level at which they were going to garner support,” the ANC’s head of elections, Mdumiseni Ntuli, said in an interview.

ANC councillors in KwaZulu-Natal have already indicated that they will quit should the party move toward teaming up with the Democratic Alliance at a national level.

That means Ramaphosa’s favoured coalition, which would, in theory, bring him out of Zuma’s reach, is “extremely dangerous” for the ANC, political analyst Lukhona Mnguni said.

It would risk ceding even more control of a part of the country that’s home to logistic transport corridors, including the major ports of Durban and Richard’s Bay.

“The ANC would have to decide whether it bites the bullet and forgets altogether” about having the province “as part of its structures,” Mnguni said. It would probably be the “death of the ANC” in that part of South Africa.


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