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Friday, June 21, 2024

Jacob Zuma Gets His Revenge on South African Party That Shunned Him

Jacob Zuma’s political career could have ended when he was forced to resign six years ago as South Africa’s president over corruption allegations.

Or it could have ended when he was criminally charged for taking bribes, or when he was indicted on rape charges, or when he went to jail for contempt of court, or when he was suspended from the African National Congress, South Africa’s long ruling governing party.

But Mr. Zuma, 82, has improbably bounced back after every threat to his political survival, and now has significant power to determine who will lead the country.

The political party that Mr. Zuma began six months ago — umKhonto weSizwe, or M.K. — finished third in last week’s national election, upending South Africa’s political landscape. The showing helped to bring about the stunning collapse of the party he once led — the African National Congress, or A.N.C., which failed to win an outright majority for the first time since the country’s democracy began in 1994.

Mr. Zuma is positioned to achieve what analysts and political rivals say they believe his return to politics is really about: punishing an A.N.C. that he believes turned against him, and particularly President Cyril Ramaphosa, his former deputy.

“We will take back our A.N.C.,” Mr. Zuma said on Monday, addressing supporters in downtown Johannesburg.

In a rambling address that lasted 45 minutes, Mr. Zuma took direct aim at Mr. Ramaphosa, saying the A.N.C. had been given “to criminals who steal money and hide it under the mattress.” That was a reference to a scandal in which more than half a million dollars was stolen from a sofa at one of Mr. Ramaphosa’s properties.

The A.N.C. remains the country’s most popular party, winning 40 percent of the vote. But that was an embarrassing 18 percentage point slide from the previous election in 2019.

Mr. Zuma’s party came in at 14.5 percent. The M.K. says it would not enter a governing coalition with the A.N.C. unless Mr. Ramaphosa resigns, but the A.N.C.’s leaders have said that is a nonstarter.

Even after Mr. Zuma’s party exceeded the expectations of most pollsters and analysts, he is challenging the results, claiming, without providing evidence publicly, that the country’s electoral commission colluded with the A.N.C. to rig the vote. Mr. Zuma claims his party actually won a two-thirds majority.

“We were expecting, obviously, our two-thirds,” Duduzile Zuma, one of Mr. Zuma’s daughters, said in an interview. But with “the rigging, there’s some issues.”

South Africa’s highest court ruled only weeks ago that Mr. Zuma could not serve in parliament because of his contempt conviction for failing to testify before a corruption inquiry. This also made him ineligible for the presidency because the president must be a member of parliament.

Mr. Zuma’s new party took its name from the A.N.C.’s armed wing during the fight against apartheid. In that era, Mr. Zuma served as an underground militant with the wing; his political activities got him arrested in 1963. He spent 10 years imprisoned on Robben Island alongside Nelson Mandela, and served the A.N.C. from exile after he was released.

During the transition out of apartheid in the early 1990s, Mr. Zuma was the A.N.C.’s deputy Secretary General under Mr. Ramaphosa. Mr. Zuma eventually became deputy president to South Africa’s second democratically-elected president, Thabo Mbeki, in 1999.

But Mr. Mbeki fired him after he was implicated in bribery as part of an arms deal. Mr. Zuma was later charged criminally in that case; those charges are still pending. Mr. Zuma was also charged around that time with raping a family friend who was visiting his home, but he was acquitted after a trial.

Despite Mr. Zuma’s falling out with Mr. Mbeki, he built a loyal faction within the A.N.C. He became the leader of the party in 2007 and the nation’s president in 2009.

He served a politically tumultuous nine years during which he was accused of improperly using state money to fund improvements to his rural homestead in his home province of KwaZulu-Natal. He was also accused of allowing friends and associates to loot government funds.

After he resigned under pressure in 2018, a judge led a yearslong public inquiry into corruption during his tenure. Mr. Zuma was sentenced to 15 months in prison for refusing to testify before the inquiry.

Mr. Zuma’s supporters took to the streets in protest in 2021 after he was jailed, and the demonstrations spiraled out of control as disillusioned South Africans lit up parts of the country with the worst rioting since the end of apartheid. About 350 people died in the unrest, which caused an estimated $2.6 billion in damages.

Mr. Zuma served about two months in prison before he was released on medical parole.

While South Africans are generally down on their politicians, polls show that Mr. Ramaphosa is more popular than Mr. Zuma. A survey by Ipsos South Africa this year found that Mr. Zuma had the second highest job approval rating among the leaders of the top political parties, behind Mr. Ramaphosa.

Mr. Zuma holds himself out as an advocate for the struggling Black majority, while portraying Mr. Ramaphosa, a billionaire investor, as representing the interests of wealthy white-owned businesses.

In its manifesto, the M.K. party says the state will seize all of the country’s land and take control of natural resources to ensure that the proceeds benefit all South Africans. It says it will raise the minimum wage and create a universal health care system.

“There is more poverty, there is more problems, there is more criminality,” Mr. Zuma said during a news conference to announce the party last December. The A.N.C. leadership was failing to correct those problems, he said, so he wanted to do something about it.

But Mpumelelo Mkhabela, a political analyst who has written a book about corruption within the A.N.C., said Mr. Zuma failed during nine years as president and more than three decades in top leadership of the governing party to drastically change circumstances for poor Black South Africans.

“People could rightly ask, why didn’t you propagate all of these policies all along,” Mr. Mkhabela said.

A.N.C. leaders have not ruled out reuniting with Mr. Zuma to form a government. Some South Africans are worried that corruption would thrive if that were to happen.

But to Mr. Zuma’s supporters, the corruption allegations are baseless. Much like former President Donald J. Trump, Mr. Zuma has been able to turn trials and investigations into a political strength. He paints himself as a victim of sinister forces trying to take him down because he is championing the poor.

Reggie Ngcobo, a regional coordinator for M.K. in KwaZulu-Natal, said Mr. Zuma is “just a typical rural man” tending his cattle, who gets an unfair shake in the media. He said that he had been warmly welcomed many times at Mr. Zuma’s homestead, and that Mr. Zuma would improve the lives of the Black majority.

When Mr. Zuma launched M.K., Mr. Ngcobo, 43, said he left the butchery and delivery businesses he owned to volunteer for the party full time.

With Mr. Zuma, he said, “I see hope and the future.”

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