×

South Africa’s Electoral Body Takes Candidate Zuma’s Case To Top Court

The vote is expected to be the most competitive since the 1994 advent of democracy in South Africa, and Zuma's presence in the campaign could prove a key factor.


FILES: Former South African President Jacob Zuma looks on during the 55th National Conference of the African National Congress (ANC) at the National Recreation Center (NASREC) in Johannesburg on December 16, 2022. (Photo by GUILLEM SARTORIO / AFP)

 

The electoral commission said Friday it had appealed to South Africa’s highest court to rule on whether ex-president Jacob Zuma can stand in a general election in May as political tensions heighten.

The vote is expected to be the most competitive since the 1994 advent of democracy in South Africa, and Zuma’s presence in the campaign could prove a key factor.

The commission said in a statement that it had lodged an “urgent and direct” appeal to the Constitutional Court to provide “certainty”.

It is the latest twist in legal wrangling over the eligibility of the 82-year-old, who celebrated his birthday Friday and is fronting uMkhonto we Sizwe (MK), a new opposition party that has become a potential disruptor in the May 29 ballot.

In a surprise verdict on Tuesday, the electoral court ruled that Zuma could stand, overturning a decision by the electoral commission to bar him over a contempt of court conviction.

The commission had excluded Zuma from the race at the end of last month, saying the constitution barred anyone sentenced to more than 12 months’ imprisonment.

Zuma was handed 15 months in jail in June 2021 after refusing to testify to a panel investigating financial corruption and cronyism during his presidency.

His lawyers argued the sentence did not disqualify him as it followed civil rather than criminal proceedings, and had been shortened by a remission.

Zuma was freed on medical parole just two months into his jail term.

The electoral commission said Friday that there was “substantial public interest in providing certainty on the proper interpretation” of the constitutional article relating to election candidates who have been convicted.

“Such clarity is important in the present matter because of a live issue but also for future elections,” it said.

 

– ‘Free and fair’ –

 

The commission did not intend the appeal “to involve itself in the political field of play”.

“It is rather to ensure free and fair elections by ensuring that applicable constitutional provisions relating to elections are clearly understood by all role-players and applied evenly,” it said.

“The MK Party will be elated by this,” political commentator Sizwe Mpofu-Walsh wrote on X.

If the court hears the appeal, “It will hand MK a prime opportunity to mobilise on the eve of the election. It will keep MK in the headlines and further unite the party around a narrative of persecution — a narrative fmr pres Zuma thrives on,” he said.

AFP was unable to reach the MK party for comment.

Banking on his popularity, MK is expected to cut into the vote share of the embattled African National Congress (ANC) — the governing party and Zuma’s former political home.

This could see the ANC vote share drop below 50 percent for the first time since 1994.

Short of a parliamentary majority, the party would be forced to seek coalition partners to remain in power.

The ANC is struggling in opinion polls amid a weak economy and allegations of corruption and mismanagement.

Some polls put MK at above 10 percent nationwide, which would make it the third or fourth political force behind the ANC and the liberal Democratic Alliance.

The party is projected to make a  strong showing in the battleground region of KwaZulu-Natal, Zuma’s home province.

The charismatic Zuma, who was president from 2009 to 2018, still carries considerable political clout and has in recent months garnered major media attention.

Despite scandals and graft allegations, he remains popular, particularly among the country’s more than 10 million Zulus.

According to the latest poll from the South African think tank Social Research Foundation, the MK would be the second largest opposition at 13 percent.

The ANC was predicted to garner 36 percent of the vote ahead of the largest opposition Democratic Alliance (DA) which polled at 25 percent.

South Africans will be voting for a new parliament, which in turn will elect the president