HomeFOREIGNSouth Africa's Court Bars Former President Jacob Zuma from Parliamentary Run

South Africa’s Court Bars Former President Jacob Zuma from Parliamentary Run

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Afor Kenneth

South Africa’s highest court ruled on Monday that Jacob Zuma, the former president who has become a prominent opposition figure, is ineligible to run for parliament in the upcoming general election.

This ruling is expected to anger Zuma’s supporters and raise concerns about potential violent unrest leading up to the May 29 election, which is considered the most competitive since the establishment of post-apartheid democracy in 1994.

The court dismissed Zuma’s challenge against the electoral commission’s decision, which stated that his previous conviction for contempt of court disqualifies him from becoming a Member of Parliament. The constitution bars anyone sentenced to more than 12 months in jail from holding such a position.

Zuma, who stepped down in 2018 amid numerous corruption allegations, was convicted of contempt of court in 2021 and sentenced to 15 months in prison. Although he served less than three months, the court ruled that this early release did not affect his ineligibility.

“This court concludes that Mr Zuma was convicted of an offence and sentenced to more than 12 months imprisonment… and is accordingly not eligible to be a member of and not qualified to stand for election to the national assembly,” Justice Leona Theron said, reading the judgment.

After a South African general election, the president is selected by Members of Parliament (MPs) from among their own ranks. Therefore, if Jacob Zuma is not on the ballot, he cannot become president, even if his newly-formed party secures enough seats to nominate him.

Supporters gathered around the court, some dressed in military fatigues associated with his uMkhonto we Sizwe (MK) party, are determined to win a two-thirds majority in the National Assembly to amend the constitution.

However, opinion polls indicate that Zuma’s party is unlikely to perform well outside his home province of KwaZulu-Natal.

The former president attracted a large crowd of 30,000 to a stadium in Soweto, near Johannesburg, on Saturday, where he addressed his core supporters in Zulu.

“We are very disappointed. There is an agenda, of course, to delay the liberation of black people in this country,” said Lindiwe Mtshali, a 39-year-old MK party member, speaking to AFP outside the court.

Mtshali, wearing a black MK Women’s League T-shirt, acknowledged that the decision on Zuma’s candidacy was anticipated. Nonetheless, she expressed confidence that the remaining MK candidates would still perform well on May 29, with Zuma’s name and image still appearing on the already printed ballot papers.

“We are resolute,” she vowed.

Since leaving office, Jacob Zuma has been involved in numerous legal battles.

He established the MK party to contest the African National Congress (ANC), led by his successor Cyril Ramaphosa, in the upcoming election. This election is notable as it may be the first since 1994 where the ANC fails to secure an absolute majority.

The ANC has dominated every South African election since the advent of democracy in 1994. Zuma served as the ANC’s fourth president from 2009 to 2018, a period many South Africans associate with widespread corruption.

Outside the court, Neeshan Balton, the 62-year-old executive director of the Ahmed Kathrada Foundation, which participated in the case as amicus curiae, welcomed the ruling.

“It reaffirms that if you want to be a candidate, you must pledge to uphold the constitution. The former president clearly was not going to uphold the constitution, and we are happy that he’s disqualified,” he said.

If Zuma’s new party erodes the ANC’s traditional support base, Ramaphosa may need to form a coalition with one or more of the smaller opposition parties to secure re-election.

The decision to exclude Zuma from the ballot could also incite unrest. Rioting after his imprisonment in 2021 resulted in over 350 deaths.

South Africa’s Independent Electoral Commission noted that ballot papers have already been printed with Zuma’s image, but he would be unable to serve as an MP if deemed ineligible.

The ANC was a leading force in the fight against apartheid. However, Nelson Mandela’s party has struggled in the polls ahead of this year’s election, plagued by corruption allegations, high crime, and unemployment rates.

Nearly a third of the working-age population is unemployed, and the murder rate stands at 84 per day.

Despite these challenges, the ANC maintains a strong nationwide electoral presence and has implemented a broad social welfare system. Many older South Africans remain loyal to its historic legacy.

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