How South Africa's former leader Zuma turned on his allies and became a surprise election foe (2024)



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JOHANNESBURG (AP) — South Africa faces an unusual national election this year, its seventh vote since transitioning from white minority rule to a democracy 30 years ago. Polls and analysts warn that for the first time, the ruling African National Congress party that has comfortably held power since Nelson Mandela became the country’s first Black president in 1994 might receive less than 50% of votes.

One big reason is Jacob Zuma, the former president and ANC leader who stepped down in disgrace in 2018 amid a swirl of corruption allegations but has emerged in recent months with a new political party. It intends to be a major election player as the former president seeks revenge against former longtime allies.

Here is what you need to know about the 82-year-old Zuma’s return to the political ring and how it might play a significant election role.


Zuma has long been one of South Africa’s most recognizable politicians. He was a senior leader in the ANC during the liberation struggle against apartheid. A former ANC intelligence chief, he has repeatedly threatened to reveal some of the party’s secrets. While Zuma was not one of Mandela’s preferred choices to succeed him, Mandela trusted Zuma to play an influential role in ending deadly political violence that engulfed KwaZulu-Natal province before the historic 1994 elections. The province has remained a vocal base of support for Zuma ever since, and members of Zuma’s Zulu ethnic group make up its majority. Zuma became deputy leader of the ANC in 1997 and was appointed South Africa’s deputy president in 1999.


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Zuma’s path to power included legal challenges. In 2006, he was found not guilty of raping the daughter of a comrade at Zuma’s home in Johannesburg. A year earlier, he was fired as South Africa’s deputy president after his financial advisor was convicted for corruption for soliciting bribes for Zuma during an infamous arms deal. Alleging a political witch hunt, Zuma launched an aggressive political campaign that saw him elected ANC president in 2007. His campaign appealed to widespread discontent with then-President Thabo Mbeki, who was often described as autocratic and aloof. The corruption charges against Zuma were later dropped, amid controversy, and he was elected South Africa’s president in 2009.


Zuma’s presidency was often under fire. His close friends and allies, the Gupta family, were accused of influencing appointments to key cabinet positions in exchange for lucrative business deals. The allegations of corruption in government and state-owned companies eventually led the ANC force Zuma to resign in 2018. A judicial commission of inquiry uncovered wide-ranging evidence, and Zuma in 2021 was convicted and sentenced to 15 months in jail for refusing to testify. Zuma remains aggrieved with the ANC and his successor, President Cyril Ramaphosa. But few South Africans expected the break to go so far.


Zuma shocked the country in December by denouncing the ANC and campaigning against a party that had been at the heart of his political career. His new political party, UMkhonto WeSizwe, was named after the ANC’s military wing, which was disbanded at the end of the struggle against white minority rule. The ANC has launched a legal case seeking to stop the new party from using a name and logo that are similar to those of the military wing. The charismatic Zuma continues to crisscross the country, delivering lively speeches, and an image of his face will represent the party on ballots.


The ANC already had been facing pressure from other opposition parties. But Zuma’s new party threatens to draw support from within the often divided ANC. South Africa’s electoral body has cleared him to run for a parliament seat, despite his past conviction. Polls suggest the new party may emerge as one of the country’s biggest opposition parties and could play a significant role if the weakening ANC must form coalitions to run the country. Addressing his supporters at a recent rally, Zuma declared that “I need to return so that I can fix things.”

How South Africa's former leader Zuma turned on his allies and became a surprise election foe (2024)
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