South Africa: The Two Faces of Jacob Zuma – Former South African President Campaigns to Unseat the ANC He Once Led. Who Supports Him and Why?

Former South African president Jacob Zuma’s political comeback builds on support from marginalised and angry constituencies within or close to the governing African National Congress (ANC). His vengeful but “loyal” rebellion against the ANC resonates with these political constituencies.

In mid-December 2023, Zuma announced that he would be supporting the newly formed uMkhonto weSizwe Party (MK Party), rather than the ANC, in the upcoming national election. But he would not resign from the ANC. Umkhonto we Sizwe is the name of the ANC’s former guerrilla army.

This latest assault by Zuma on the ANC coincides with the embattled party entering a tough campaigning period for the national and provincial elections, expected between May and August 2024. Zuma is using his new platform to strike at his arch-enemy, President Cyril Ramaphosa, who also heads the ANC.

Zuma, president of the ANC from 2007 to 2017, and of South Africa from 2009 to early 2018, rose to power controversially, amid allegations of corruption related to the government’s 1998 procurement of arms. This scandal became the hallmark of his reign, followed by the debilitating state capture and gross misgovernance scandals.

He has used the Stalingrad legal strategy – wearing down a plaintiff by challenging their every move – to evade justice. However, he was convicted on a relatively minor charge in July 2021, for defying a court order to appear at a judicial commission into state capture. His subsequent jailing triggered violent protests in which about 350 people died. There are fears that further action against Zuma could spark a resurgence.

Challenging Ramaphosa

Zuma has portrayed the MK Party as the authentic ANC, not the one led by Ramaphosa. He has been drawing sizeable crowds to the meetings of the new party, provoking the ANC and paralysing its strategists. The ANC faces a difficult choice: suspend or expel Zuma and face a backlash; or tolerate him within the ANC, lest he turns disciplinary action against him into martyrdom.

My academic study of South African politics, and the ANC, over three decades provides some insight into why Zuma continues to command support, despite his ruinous tenure. Under his presidency, the state and its organs were captured and repurposed for his benefit and those around him; state organs were disabled and ANC factional divisions pushed to unprecedented levels. I suggest the reasons people still support him include public unhappiness with the ANC’s performance in government; Zuma’s cunning casting of himself as their similarly suffering saviour; his exploitation of Zulu cultural identity; the shared loss with his faction of status; and exclusion from the ANC’s patronage system. He feeds on the government’s performance failures.

State of the ANC

The ANC bears scars of at least two presidential battles: Zuma versus Mbeki, and then Zuma against Ramaphosa. The fights spawned internal enemies, many of them now Zuma disciples stirring up support for the MK Party project.

Zuma’s prime target is the Ramaphosa-led ANC with its Thuma Mina (“Send Me”) campaign, which promised to rebuild the country from the mess Zuma created or exacerbated, guided, according to the text, by values of integrity, equality, solidarity and shared humanity. Zuma accuses Ramaphosa of being corrupted by “white monopoly capital”, and pins his marginalisation from the ANC on having become the victim of a corrupted judiciary. He complains that Ramaphosa introduced practices that are foreign to the ANC’s character.

At the height of Zuma’s tenure as president of South Africa, 2009 to early 2018, he proved himself as the patriarch of patronage. Tenders were his to dictate. Entire state institutions fell victim.

His attack on the ANC resonates with an activist core that is angry with losing the privileged positions they held before Ramaphosa became the party leader in 2017. Some were felled by the Ramaphosa-led ANC’s clampdown on corruption.

Zuma also gets support from former ANC provincial and national leaders who have been at the receiving end of ANC disciplinary action. For them, supporting for Zuma is a way to punish the ANC.

Zuma’s portrayal of himself as a victim at the hands of Ramaphosa resonates with many who feel they have been wronged by their organisation.

For the “tenderpreneurs” – business people who feed off government contracts – the taps have been dripping rather than spouting contracts as before. They are set to bond with citizens whose livelihoods dissipate as government policies fade and fail.

Zuma’s popular standing coincides with the decline in the electoral standing of the ANC.

State of government

The ANC of 2024 is weather-worn and has less of a grip on the state’s delivery apparatus. Despite the party’s claims, there is slim hope for economic growth and jobs that will be sufficient to drive an economic turnaround.

Many have no chance to move beyond a life of social security grants and dependence on the state.

The ANC’s poor performance in government – high unemployment, deep inequality, continuously rising poverty, crime, poor and collapsing services, collapse of public infrastructure – provides fertile soil for the populist and opportunistic former president to reclaim credentials of the ANC’s former armed wing, scavenge on ANC weaknesses and wreak havoc in the party.

The disgruntled communities supporting Zuma also feature military veterans and religious organisations, largely in the province of KwaZulu-Natal. Zuma has had well-attended meetings in other provinces too.

Across all strata of society, there is anger with how the ANC has been treating citizens. Many citizens now fail to see the promise of order and definitive economic progress in Ramaphosa’s plans and visions.

Zuma’s KwaZulu-Natal trump card

The KwaZulu-Natal province helped sustain national ANC support at a time when the ANC had started declining below its 2004 two-thirds-plus national majority. Without this boost, the ANC would have declined faster and earlier. Zuma’s contribution was in bolstering high-level Zulu cultural presence and political influence in the ANC. He helped make the ANC an organisation where this populous group of South Africans felt they had a political home. Their votes followed.

This helped Zuma build a near-untouchable status in the ANC. It helps explain why ANC leaders would go hat in the hand to his Nkandla homestead requesting his help in election campaigning, after the end of his party presidency.

Zuma, in 2024 campaign rallies, promises traditional leaders (amakhosi) the status of sovereign authorities with executive powers. This idea, he well knows, is at odds with the country’s constitutional democracy. Yet it endears him to traditionalists who do not feel at home in a multiparty, competitive democracy.

Hedging bets

Zuma’s new model of resistance – voting for an ANC-derivative party against the ANC (while remaining within its ranks) – appeals to many discontented citizens and traditional communities. It arrives at a time when many South Africans, and in particular ANC followers, feel multiparty democracy and its governance have not worked for them.

Zuma operates on the belief that he will be the hero of this struggle. If electoral politics does not satisfy the discontented citizens, and anger and rebellion prevail, he has already shown that he is an effective apostle of the alternative track of non-electoral politics. He offers the full repertoire of protest and rebellion associated with the ANC, a former liberation movement, now party, which survives but battles to reconnect with the hearts and minds of citizens.

Susan Booysen, Visiting Professor and Professor Emeritus, University of the Witwatersrand

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