Jacob Zuma, Once Leader of the A.N.C., Becomes Its Political Rival

Unemployed graduates, struggling business owners and army veterans marched through the eastern South African city of Pietermaritzburg this week, chanting Jacob Zuma’s name.

The demonstrators numbering about 500 paralyzed parts of the city, in KwaZulu-Natal province, the traditional stronghold of Mr. Zuma, the former president of both South Africa and the African National Congress, the party that ruled the country for three decades. .

The demand for water and electricity, and the protest over common local concerns, was a show of strength for the new political party that Zuma now leads – uMkhonto weSizwe, or MK – in the hope of eroding the dominant position of its former allies.

“We have to fight to change things,” said Khumbuzile Vongola, 49, who joined the march after her neighborhood was without water for weeks. “MK is all about change.”

As vendors sold Jacob Zuma T-shirts and MK-branded energy drinks, and men in military uniforms of long-defunct anti-apartheid movements organized the crowd, the demonstrators embodied Mr. Zuma’s new party: a group of aggrieved voters who, like the party, fell out with the party. The ruler they consider ineffective and corrupt. Zuma’s supporters now form a large enough bloc to do so Turn him into a potential kingmaker In South Africa’s general elections scheduled for May 29.

Mr Zuma himself was not present at the Pietermaritzburg rally. Instead, he was preparing for a hearing in South Africa’s Constitutional Court on Friday on whether Zuma, 82, is eligible to run at all. he He resigned from his top position in 2018 Amid widespread protests, three years later he was convicted and sentenced to prison Failure to appear in a corruption investigationthough in the end He served only two months Of the 15-month sentence.

Zuma is already facing factional battles within his nascent party: a senior Knesset leader has accused the party of forging signatures needed to run in the election, and police say they are investigating the allegations, which Zuma has dismissed as a lie. Baseless anointing.

However, none of these potential obstacles succeeded in deterring MKs or diminishing Zuma’s status as a political threat. lower court He has already ruled That he could run for office, the MK plans to turn his upcoming court appearance into a campaign event at which Mr. Zuma is expected to address his followers.

Zuma and his party quickly gained momentum, taking advantage of internal squabbles among the ANC leadership and its failure to provide basic services to South Africans. Since its founding just five months ago, the Knesset Party has upended the country’s political landscape and become one of the most visible opposition parties in a crowded field.

Although he led the party they now blame for the country’s problems, Zuma’s supporters look back on his decade in office with nostalgia, including many of those who took part in the demonstration in KwaZulu-Natal, the country’s second-most populous province.

Lucky Sibambo, a forestry engineer who described himself as a political bystander before MK’s launch and who helped mobilize the march, said he believed Mr. Zuma’s support for land expropriation without compensation and its redistribution would help black businesses like his.

Sphumilele Mthembu, 28, said she had been unable to find a paid job despite having a graduate degree in clinical psychology. “We are finished with the ANC,” she said as she watched the march from the balcony of the youth training centre. “We are tired of the lies and wasted money.”

Mncube Msizan, 34, who has been mobilizing support for Zuma at universities, cited his promises to provide free university education. Mr Mzani dismissed the corruption accusations that dogged the former president’s tenure as a political ploy to frustrate Mr Zuma in challenging the black political elite and ending white economic dominance in South Africa.

“Poverty has a colour, and it is black,” Mr Mszan said.

Zuma has turned his court battles into fodder for campaign speeches alleging political persecution, and his supporters have recast the controversies around his presidency as tales of success. But although his popularity has helped the MK party grow, the scandal-prone former president also has responsibilities as party leader, Mashube Herbert Masirumuli, a professor of public affairs at the Tshwane University of Technology in Pretoria, said in an interview.

Masirumoli said it was clear every time Mr Zuma addressed a crowd that his personal grievances shaped the party’s policies. For example, Zuma has called for a change in the judiciary, an echo of his repeated claims that he is a target of the courts.

“If the MK is no longer a face, this will also mark the end of the MK,” he added.

But so far the MK’s growth has eroded support for older opposition parties, such as the Democratic Alliance – the country’s official opposition – and the Economic Freedom Fighters. One former Democratic Alliance councilor, Reverend Sean Adkins, even said he decided at the Pietermaritzburg rally to defect to the MK, because he was fed up with the slow housing rollout in his neighbourhood. “I’m convinced,” Mr. Adkins said.

The support was for the ANC declining for years, Faced with a clear threat from the Knesset member, the ruling party faces its new rival face to face.

Recently, the ANC deployed its senior leaders and coalition partners in what the party called “a week of intense campaigning in KwaZulu-Natal”, in an attempt to win support from voters there. Along with hundreds of volunteers, senior ANC figures fanned out across the province, abandoning large gatherings for more in-person home visits.

“We are actually doing our best to talk to people, to tell them that the ANC still exists, is still strong, and is still worth supporting,” said Dr Zweli Mkhize, a former ANC regional president and presidential candidate. Election campaign in the town of Eastwood in Pietermaritzburg.

Their efforts have paid off with some local residents.

One voter, Queenie Potgieter, 65, said she would have supported the MK if the ANC had not “warmed” her house, but Dr Mkhize’s visit changed her mind.

As Dr Mkhize distributed T-shirts and gowns in the party colours, Tosiwe Mkhabela, 21, who voted for the first time, burst into tears when she saw a man she considered a celebrity. She said the ANC had provided her family with social assistance and food parcels, and she believed they would also secure her a job.

However, Annalyn Meriam, 28, who had never voted, violently rejected the ANC. “Only when it’s time to vote do they do it,” she said. “Where are they the rest of the year?”

Dr Mkhize said the ANC, aware of its failures, would not diminish Zuma’s support in the province, or discourage voters. Dr Mkhize said that under Zuma, the ANC itself had grown in KwaZulu-Natal, and it was Zuma who groomed the current provincial leaders.

Noting that the ANC had dealt with splinter parties before, Dr Mkhize said he remained cautiously confident.

“The only complication for us is that we have never seen President Zuma campaign on the other side,” he said.

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