Jacob Zuma’s new MK party vows to win in South Africa elections

Jacob Zuma, centre, arrives at an election rally in a packed Orlando Stadium in Soweto
Jacob Zuma, centre, arrives at an election rally in a packed Orlando Stadium in Soweto - Ihsaan Haffejee/Anadolu

South Africa’s Jacob Zuma vowed to nationalise industries, redistribute land and tackle crime in a fiery speech launching his new manifesto ahead of the country’s elections.

Mr Zuma, who was forced to quit as president in 2018 amid an ongoing corruption scandal, lamented the high levels of poverty among black South Africans and promised to create jobs.

“We want our children to study for free, especially those from poor households because the poverty we have was not created by us. It was created by settlers who took everything, including our land. We’ll take all those things back, make money and educate our children,” he told thousands of supporters who gathered at Orlando Stadium in Johannesburg.

The 82-year-old uMkhonto we Sizwe (MK) party leader appeared tired as he arrived in the stadium, escorted by men in military fatigues and also traditional Zulu warriors with spears and leopard skins. But he rallied as he stepped forward to speak, leading the crowd in revolutionary song and speaking for more than an hour before launching into another chorus.

“Our hunger and poverty is what creates a perception that we are criminals, we don’t have a brain, we have nothing. That time is over, because we are good people who are giving, but some people are pushing us towards criminality,” he said.

Mr Zuma said his party was aiming to get more than 65 per cent of the national vote in the upcoming elections as it would allow them to change many laws in the country’s constitution.

Possible coalition

Recent polls and analysts have suggested that the ruling African National Congress (ANC) might get less than 50 per cent of the vote and would need to form a coalition with smaller parties to remain in power. Mr Zuma’s MK party has emerged as a significant player in South Africa’s upcoming elections after it was launched in December last year.

As he whipped up supporters in his Zulu homeland, he poured scorn on the party that made him president. The ANC, which he joined as a teen more than 60 years ago, has been captured by white capitalists, he claimed, and is driving South Africa into national despair. He expressed particular ire for Cyril Ramaphosa, his successor as president, who now leads the ANC. Only by nationalising industries and allocating land to disenfranchised black farmers can the tide be turned and the country’s fearsome unemployment be tamed, Mr Zuma claimed.

Part of Mr Zuma' entourage included Zulu warriors in traditional dress
Part of Mr Zuma' entourage included Zulu warriors in traditional dress - Per-Anders Pettersson/Getty Images

His campaign speeches mark an extraordinary return to the political arena for one of South Africa’s most controversial politicians. Six years after Mr Zuma was forced from power by accusations that he presided over the wholesale looting of the public sector, he has formed a new party targeting his former comrades. The emergence of his MK party has electrified the election campaign, where the ANC this month faces losing absolute power for the first time in 30 years.

Despite his chequered past and questions over his close relations with Russia, Mr Zuma has managed to make himself one of the key figures of the election campaign. The MK party has little chance of winning the May 29 poll, but the party’s creation is widely seen as Mr Zuma’s revenge as he feels betrayed by his former comrades, particularly Mr Ramaphosa.

Its ability to take precious ANC votes in Mr Zuma’s home province of KwaZulu-Natal adds to the likelihood his former party will miss the 50 per cent share of vote needed to rule outright. Some analysts speculate that could spell the end of Mr Ramaphosa’s leadership.

Nhlamulo Ndhlela, a spokesman for the MK party, said: “The capitalists took over the ANC and chose the Right-wing puppet [Ramaphosa] to execute their agenda, selling off state-owned enterprises, selling off components of the state, our ports, the state-owned airline and so much more.

“This was no longer the same ANC when the president of the party was led and chosen by the people, by the branches: the electoral conference in 2017 was bought. The ANC is now controlled by capitalists with an agenda.”

In response, the ANC leadership has become increasingly critical of the former president. They are particularly angered by him stealing the name of the ANC’s former armed wing for his new party.

“He has defined himself as not subscribing to the values of what led us in the struggle,” said Baleka Mbete, a former deputy president. “It is a disappointment for those who worked with him that thought we knew him, but he has now defined himself differently. We can only be sad.”

Polls put the MK party at anywhere between 8 and 16 per cent of the vote
Polls put the MK party at anywhere between 8 and 16 per cent of the vote - Ihsaan Haffejee/Getty Images

Mr Zuma’s new party is the latest chapter in a long political career which has seen him avoid disaster so many times he has been nicknamed the escape artist. After joining the ANC in his teens, he was imprisoned on Robben Island for a decade under apartheid and later led the movement’s intelligence wing in exile.

With the end of apartheid, he quickly rose through the party’s ranks. Before be became president, he had also been acquitted for rape and charged with corruption over a government arms deal. Yet it was during his time as president from 2009 to 2018 that for many South Africans he became the personification of the death of Nelson Mandela’s dreams.

He was accused of presiding over a process known as state capture, where allies took control of ministries and state enterprises so they could loot budgets and assets. Mr Zuma strongly denied wrongdoing, but he was booted from power and then jailed for not testifying at a national inquiry into state capture. He served only three months due to ill health.

Mr Ndhlela alleges the inquiry was a costly farce. “It cost at least 1bn rand (£43m). Who benefited from that? It was mainly white lawyers.”

Barely six months from the foundation of the MK party, polls put it at anywhere between 8 and 16 per cent of the vote. Yet many believe Mr Zuma is still compromised by his past, meaning no other party will want to bring him into coalition.

Ghaleb Cachalia, former MP for the opposition Democratic Alliance, said: “He is damaged so massively. Even though some corruption existed prior to Zuma’s presidency in various deals, Zuma took it in a very brazen way to another level, in your face. This was state capture: milking state-owned partnerships.”

There are also questions over his ties to Russia. During his presidency he developed close relations with Moscow and visited many times, including for medical treatment.

JP Landman, one of South Africa’s most respected political analysts, questions whether Mr Zuma’s “blood feud” to unseat Mr Ramaphosa will work. He may also be doing it to secure a political legacy for his daughter, Mr Landman said. But time is running out for the charismatic escape artist and his party appears to be a one-man-show.

“One must ask the question, what is MK without Zuma? Is it a long-term prospect, when Zuma steps down or dies? He is advanced in age. Is there a long term future? It could still disintegrate, and MK may fizzle out once Mr Zuma is no longer there,” said Mr Landman.