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Jacob Zuma: South Africans have five theories about why he’s still popular

A man dances on stage wearing MK Party regalia.
Former South African President and uMkhonto weSizwe leader Jacob Zuma dances at a party rally. Michele Spatari / AFP via Getty Images

A number of theories are being touted in South Africa about why and how former president Jacob Zuma retains his appeal as a leader. And why the party he formed – uMkhonto we Sizwe – to contest the recent elections managed to get 14.58% of the vote in the national elections and 45.35% in the provincial elections in KwaZulu-Natal to become the largest party in that province. This just over five months after its launch.

But all the conjecture and explanations need to be treated with extreme caution: this is because nobody knows. Based on my five decades immersed in South African politics as a sociologist, I would argue that there is no easy explanation for the uMkhonto we Sizwe Party’s unexpected success or Zuma’s enduring popular appeal.

There was similar dissonance 14 years ago when Zuma defeated the then African National Congress (ANC) president, Thabo Mbeki, at a watershed party conference in December 2007. I analysed what one senior leader called the “Zuma tsunami” and how the event was being interpreted by the media, academics and thinking politicians themselves. I identified eight often contradictory and sometimes overlapping explanations of the phenomenon.

At the time, the lack of consensus amounted to total confusion. And a fear that South Africa was confronting an abyss.

Similar levels of apprehension accompany commentary on the role being played by Zuma and his uMkhonto weSizwe Party (MK Party) today. This requires deciphering.

My initial survey of the media suggests five ways in which this is being interpreted.

Zuma as South Africa’s Donald Trump

The first theme running through much analysis is what we might term “Jacob Zuma as Donald Trump”, the former US president who is prepared to cause political mayhem to keep himself out of jail.

This suggests that, fearing the end of the road after constantly appealing adverse court decisions to avoid prosecution for corruption, Zuma has played an ace in a deadly game of poker with the ANC.

Whereas Trump has captured the machinery and followership of the Republican Party from within, Zuma claims MK Party is essentially the true ANC which has been betrayed by those who ejected him from the presidency in 2018.


Read more: Trump and Zuma: worlds apart but bound by patriarchy and sexism


Trump claims the 2020 election in the United States was rigged by Joe Biden and shadowy “deep state” political elites. Zuma depicts the Electoral Commission of South Africa as having fixed the 2024 election in favour of the ANC to keep President Cyril Ramaphosa in power.

Trump threatens that his being sent to jail following his recent conviction as a felon would lead to a popular uprising. Zuma warns obliquely that any attempt to prevent MK Party from assuming power in KwaZulu-Natal would lead to violence.

All this and much more, as parallels between Trump and Zuma are reiterated. For added spice, Trump’s personal antagonism to Biden is matched by Zuma’s anger with Ramaphosa for displacing him.

Ethnicity

A second major theme running through much analysis is that MK Party’s unexpectedly strong performance can be explained by Zuma’s appeal to Zulu “nationalism”, or “ethnicity”.

This territory is a conceptual swamp. Zuma’s popularity and MK Party’s strong performance in KwaZulu-Natal indicate that they have successfully appealed to aspects of Zulu culture, history and exceptionalism to get support from ordinary people in the province. Just as the late Mangosuthu Buthelezi and the Inkatha Freedom Party did before them.

But there are always pitfalls in any reference to ethnicity.

Key among these is the problem of who has “ethnicity” and who does not. An implicit suggestion often being that Africans have it, and white people do not. As with other terms which are often bandied about to explain the popularity of political individuals feared by liberal elites, notably “populism” and “charisma”, using it too loosely exhausts its explanatory power.


Read more: South Africa elections: Zuma’s MK Party steals the ANC's thunder with provocative rhetoric and few clear policies


In short, if we want to use “ethnicity” as an explanation for Zuma’s popularity in KwaZulu-Natal, we need to explain why he appeals to some Zulus and not others.

Equally, we need to explain why Zuma remains popular among segments of the electorate across the nation, far beyond the boundaries of KwaZulu-Natal. This can hardly be ascribed to “ethnicity”.

Coalition of the aggrieved

The third suggestion sees uMkhonto weSizwe’s rise as the product of a “coalition of the aggrieved”: those who have felt sidelined by the Ramaphosa government’s policies.

When Zuma was elected party leader, the trade union federation Cosatu and the South African Communist Party, driven by their opposition to Mbeki’s “neo-liberal” economic policies, joined hands with aspirant entrepreneurial elites who felt that they had been excluded from the fruits of black economic empowerment.

In the 2024 election, Zuma’s coalition of support is said to have drawn heavily from those who were fingered as involved in corruption by the Zondo Commission, which probed state capture. They may have lost state contracts or fear prosecution.

Contracts

Hence follows a closely related fourth proposition. This is the notion that just as Zuma used his position as president to loot the state, shadowy players behind the MK Party back it to secure control over the provincial machinery. This, so it can allocate contracts and political goods in their favour.

At the head of the queue are the mafias which have gained prominence in key sectors of the provincial economy, notably in transport and construction. Hence MK Party likely gaining support from lobbyists for the coal industry. And its advocacy of South Africa’s further embrace of nuclear power. If pursued, these would offer multiple opportunities for the dishing out of subsidiary contracts to those close to the seats of power.

An attack on the constitution

Finally, fifthly, there is the notion that Zuma’s and uMkhonto weSizwe’s policy platforms embody an attack on the constitution and constitutionalism.

I observed in my analysis of the “Zuma tsunami” that Zuma’s ascendancy had opened Pandora’s box. It gave rise to a style and content of politics which was not merely vulgar and disrespectful of ANC traditions, but explicitly dangerous to democracy. It appealed to a social conservatism which was hostile to the values of the constitution.


Read more: The two faces of Jacob Zuma – former South African president campaigns to unseat the ANC he once led. Who supports him and why?


Linked to this is a notion of Zuma himself as politically unprincipled and cynically disposed to exploit his popular appeal for personal ends. Nadine Gordimer, the South African writer who won the Nobel prize for literature in 1991, informed us that when she saw Zuma performing, she was reminded of Hitler in the beerhall.

The urgency

What follows from all this is that there is no easy single explanation of Zuma’s political renaissance and the appearance of the uMkhonto weSizwe Party as a potential spoiler and powerful player in South African politics. It is going to take time and careful analysis to understand it, to dissect it, and to unravel its significance.

Many will agree that Zuma and his party constitute a clear and present danger to South African democracy. However, at the same time, we must seek to understand why Zuma and his party have attracted as much support as they have.

Today, much interpretation of Trump’s popularity relies on notions of alienation, his exploitation of the fears and hopes of decent, ordinary, albeit socially conservative, people who have been left behind by the rapidly changing nature of America’s capitalist economy.

Likewise, understanding Zuma’s enduring popular appeal requires probing why he gathers so much support from poor and unemployed South Africans. This despite the convincing evidence accumulated by the commission of inquiry into state capture that he presided over an era of unprecedented looting of the South African state which was contrary to their material interests.

That there is no easy explanation for uMkhonto weSizwe’s unexpected success underlines the urgency of trying harder to understand it.

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