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The MK Factor: How Zuma’s Return could shake up South Africa’s political landscape

Written by Dylan Simpson, contributions from Adrian Elimian

Nestled along the Eswatini border, KwaZulu-Natal is hot, green and like the rest of South Africa, incredibly diverse. KwaZulu-Natal is made of large Indian, English, and Coloured populations, but by far its largest group are ethnic Zulus. Their unique culture and perspectives, one built on community, struggle against rival tribes and imperial powers, and traditionalist conservatism and leadership structures has given the province a unique political identity.

The unique demographics and history of the province have at times translated into instability and turmoil, but has always made it an important province for political parties as the population of the province and the size of the Zulu vote (the largest ethnic group in the country) simply being too important to ignore. As South Africa braces for its May election, all eyes turn to KZN as the ANC faces the prospect of its unassailable majority teetering on the brink, largely as a result of an increasing dislike for the ANC in KZN. But why? How did it get to this? And will KZN really be what makes or breaks the ANC majority in South Africa?

Historical reenactment of Zulu warriors in the Battle of Isandlwana ()


In 1994, the ANC won the majority of the vote in seven of the eight majority-Black provinces, marking the beginning of ANC dominance in South African electoral politics. However, amidst this landslide victory for the ANC, KwaZulu-Natal emerged as a considerable outlier. The ANC faced substantial opposition here from one other political party — the Inkatha Freedom Party (conservative). The IFP had been one of the key movements against Apartheid; formed in 1975, the party and its leader Mangosuthu Buthelezi controversially worked within the Bantustan system and protest movement to fight apartheid while also, particularly towards the 1990s, fought to safeguard the position of Zulus. The party advocated for a conservative constitution that guaranteed the position of the Zulu royal family and traditional values calling the first drafted constitution the ANC put forward, an “Abortion of a constitution.” When the growing divides between the ANC and Inkata emerged over ethnicity, political ideology and tactics, the apartheid state fermented conflicts between them, funnelling weapons and money to the IFP, with the ensuing violence on both sides costing thousands of lives. When the IFP finally announced it would contest the first democratic election, just eight days before it was due to take place, it ran on a similar platform but accepted the new constitution whilst advocating for further devolution to the provinces. But after a few elections, the party would decline to near-irrelevancy, being a shadow of its former self in the province, but why?

The Zuma Factor

The answer largely rests with one man, former ANC President Jacob Zuma.

Born into a poor rural Zulu family, radicalised by oppression from the Apartheid state, Zuma joined the ANC aged 17. In 1962, he joined the ANC’s armed wing, uMkhonto we Sizwe (MK), a decision that would eventually lead to his decade-long incarceration on Robben Island alongside other ANC members like Nelson Mandela and Kgalema Motlanthe. Once released, Zuma further immersed himself in organising efforts within the ANC and its armed wing, particularly in his home province of KZN, earning a devoted following and quickly moving up party ranks into key leadership positions, later becoming a member of the ANC national executive and then head of intelligence.

His ascent within the ANC continued at a rapid pace during the transition to democracy. In 1994, Zuma was elected ANC National Chairperson before becoming Deputy President in 1999, to the great disdain of the then-President, Thabo Mbeki. The relationship between Mbeki, a Xhosa man from an influential political family who was firmly inside the more centrist and liberal wing of the ANC, and Zuma, a traditional conservative Zulu and a supporter of much more radical socialist economics, was fraught with tension, personal grudges, and near-constant political infighting. This bitter rivalry only deepened during the Arms Deal Scandal, when Jacob Zuma was removed as Deputy President by Mbeki after several senior ANC politicians, including Zuma and his close friend Schabir Shaik were accused of illegally buying unneeded military equipment in exchange for bribes. Despite Shaik being later convicted for fraud and corruption, the move to remove Zuma from such a powerful position was seen as politically motivated amongst Zuma’s allies and much of the media, especially as other senior politicians implicated in corruption scandals were not given the same treatment.

Yet in 2007, Zuma’s political fortunes underwent a remarkable turnaround, exploiting Mbeki’s waning popularity within the ANC over his centrist economics and isolated leadership style, Zuma was able to galvanise the ANC to elect him as President of the party, beating Mbeki by a comfortable margin at a party conference, forcing Mbeki to resign as President and leading to an exodus of more centrist ANC figures from the party.

Upon becoming President, Zuma embraced his Zulu identity with his signature slogan of “100% Zulu boy” and championed more conservative values. He flaunted his polygamous marriages — a tradition rooted in large parts of Zulu culture, promoted and funded traditional medicines, and gave more power and autonomy to tribal authorities, all while publicly forging closer ties with the Zulu royal family. His disapproval of gay rights, including boasting about assaulting gay men as well as his disparaging comments about single mothers and teenage pregnancies, while controversial and disliked by many, did appeal to large parts of the conservative rural areas of KZN. This identity-based politics massively grew the ANC’s popularity in the Zulu community, eating away at the IFP’s support while maintaining the allegiance of the left of the ANC.

The impact of Zuma’s support amongst Zulu voters was massive. The surging growth in ANC support amongst the group, particularly in KZN, provided a strong buffer against challenges posed by the decline in ANC support in other provinces and demographics, particularly Coloured and young Black voters.

If in 2009 the ANC received the same number of votes in KZN as it did in 2004 (assuming the same provincial turnout), the party vote share would have fallen nationally to 60% (as opposed to 66%). If the ANC received the same vote share in 2014 in KZN as it did in 2004, then its vote share would have declined to 55% (as opposed to 62%). Zulu voters thus became a far more consequential part of the ANC voter coalition, with KZN dethroning Gauteng as the province with the most ANC voters. The ANC’s majority under Zuma now relied on KZN voters in a way it did not under Mandela or Mbeki, massively changing the political landscape and campaign strategy of the ANC.

For many first time ANC voters in KZN, a vote for the ANC was less about the party itself, but moreso about Zuma and the Zulu identity he represented.

Zuma’s fall from Grace

Zuma’s corruption issues frequently caused chaos within his own party, there are several dozen corruption incidents that could be listed, but the two most prominent scandals that need to be discussed while he was President are the Nkandla debacle and Guptagate.

In 2013, with a backdrop of several hundred corruption allegations, a story broke that Zuma had spent over 246 million rand of taxpayer and foreign aid money on “Security upgrades” for his estate in Nkandla. These included new kitchens, a chicken-run, a cattle Kraal, a marquee area, several houses for family relatives, and a helipad, but most damaging to his image was the installation of a large “fire-safety” pool in his back garden. Even after ANC officials lied, saying that these “upgrades” either didn’t exist or were legitimate, the public damage and legal challenges to Zuma forced him to eventually pay back the vast majority of the public funds spent on his homestead and his image of a man of the people was massively damaged.

The “fire safety” pool at Zuma’s Nkandla estate

However, the scandal which was the most detrimental to Zuma’s relationship with his party was the Guptagate scandal. The scandal revolved around President Zuma’s shady relationship with the Indian billionaire Gupta family, after they first met in 2003. It was alleged that through a corrupt political and business alliance between them, the Guptas provided huge political and financial support to Zuma, funding his campaigns, personal lifestyle, and even giving his family members key positions at their companies. In exchange for these inducements, Zuma would give the Gupta family all manner of looting rights, including free reign over government contracts, tax breaks, and paid for security. Most shocking however, was their alleged ability to hand pick members of Zuma’s cabinet, leading to a record breaking 12 cabinet reshuffles during Zuma’s time in office. The mining and finance ministries — key areas of control for the Guptas given their business interests — were constantly reshuffled, with little reasons given.

When revealed to the public, outcry was massive with leader of the Economic Freedom Fighters Julius Malema saying the Gupta family “de facto colonised South Africa, with Zuma being the chief colonial administrator.” But it was not just the opposition furious as the control the Gupta family had over Zuma made many ANC MPs feel sidelined, especially those who had been removed from Zuma’s cabinet or felt their party’s support weakened. Zuma became increasingly isolated inside the ANC, relying more and more on the backing of a shrinking left-wing faction, largely from KZN and tied to him through alleged corrupt business dealings.

The growing tidal wave of scandals, but particularly these two, eventually led the ANC national executive to recall Zuma, forcing him to resign or face a no-confidence vote from his own party in parliament. Shortly before the vote could take place, Zuma resigned, irreversibly damaging his relationship with the ANC and ejecting him from power.

But these troubles would only get worse for Zuma. The many legal battles he fought would catch up to him, with him being charged and convicted of contempt of court after he failed to show up to a panel on financial corruption. Although given a relatively light sentence of 15 months, it meant that he was legally barred from running as an MP. Outrage from many of his supporters, with the arrest being seen by them as proof of Zuma’s allegations of a white capitalist conspiracy to oust him, combined with the desperate poverty of many South Africans led to a series of explosive riots and mass looting leaving over 300 dead, with the police almost totally incapable of dealing with the scale of the violence.

The ANC without Jacob Zuma

The electoral implications in KZN for an ANC without Zuma emerged quickly. Despite the new President Cyril Ramaphosa having high approval ratings, ANC support in the province fell, with the EFF and IFP making significant gains in 2019 through a combination of Zuma supporters switching to them or staying at home. In the 2021 local elections, this electoral shift was accelerated with the IFP making big inroads into the Midlands area of KZN and regaining some of their heartlands that had been lost to the ANC under Zuma. The DA was even able to take the black majority municipality of Umgeni in rural KZN, a place which had never voted for any other party except the ANC in its history.

Things only got worse for the ANC. By-election after by-election in the province from 2022 onwards showed the ANC sustaining big losses to the IFP in majority-Black wards in KZN with the ANC falling to below 50% provincially in several polls in 2023. The four large polls done between May and December 2023 showed the average results of the ANC to be just 37%, a far cry from the Zuma-era peak of over 64% just 9 years prior. Yet a political bombshell by the former President turned the ANC’s situation from bad to catastrophic.

The Return of Zuma

Using the name of the ANC’s previously mentioned armed wing, uMkhonto we Sizwe (MK), a hitherto unknown man called Jabulani Sibongiseni Khumalo, with no significant political experience, launched the uMkhonto we Sizwe Party with the backing of Jacob Zuma in September 2023. Khumalo has claimed he was a former ANC member and MK veteran, however many MK veterans have strongly denied this and so far little evidence has been put forward by him or the party to corroborate his claims. The party was little known and irrelevant, until in December 2023 Zuma publicly endorsed the party in a fiery speech, calling the ANC a party “led by sellouts and apartheid collaborators.” The party has little formal structures, and its leadership details are murky, being filled almost entirely by close Zuma allies who’ve left the ANC or EFF. Only recently in April 2024, the party announced Jacob Zuma as its de jure leader with key figures within MK, including its founder, Jabulani Khumalo, being removed. Even more shadowy are the details on who is actually funding them, with no answers being released by its leadership or Zuma. Jacob Zuma has been given another boost recently when a court overturned an earlier IEC ruling that found he couldn’t run for parliament, enabling him to sit as an MK party MP after the elections.

Policywise the MK party had been very light on detail until recently, largely focusing on the personality of Zuma to gain traction. Its manifesto supports a left-wing populist agenda aimed at righting the historical wrongs of apartheid. It wants an “end to austerity and neoliberalism” with a massive increase in government spending on public services while also using “macroprudential fiscal and monetary policies to eliminate the current account deficit” (with no clarification about what this actually means) and wants to nationalise all the major banks, redistribute land without compensation, and also impose tariffs on more foreign goods. On social issues, MK have been vague but have criticised South Africa’s “liberal constitution” and want to give more powers to traditional monarchs through a new “lower house of parliament” in addition to a new branch of local government focused on traditional leadership. The party supports a curriculum that promotes “African values and morals with special attention to gender relations” and a “national education programme focusing on African spiritual and moral values.” Given Zuma’s traditional views, and that at a recent rally he called gay marriage undemocratic and against the values of traditional African leaders, we can safely assume these vague platitudes likely include the promotion of socially conservative values. Zuma has also stated that the MK party will send pregnant teenagers off to the Robben Island prison where they will be made to complete “University studies.” He even went on to say that the child of a pregnant teenager is “not a life, it’s a disease.”

On foreign policy, MK has been vague but have expressed support for Putin’s war in Ukraine, as well as for the people of Palestine and Cuba. The MK party also includes a strong commitment to tackling illegal immigration and strengthening the border, arguing the measures would tackle “overcrowding” and crime. In short, the party includes multiple aspects of populism, criticising existing institutions with strong language, while also holding a left wing anti-establishment agenda and promoting conservative social values, all classical Zuma beliefs and values.

Looking at polling and by-elections can reveal that amongst much of Zuma’s traditional base there is strong support for the MK party. The 3 by-elections which the MK party have performed the best in (all Zulu majority wards) have shown them making big gains off the ANC, IFP and EFF, receiving 20% in AbaQualisi, 28% in Govan Mbeki and 28% in Newcastle, these results broadly in line with provincial polling and subsamples. In the two non-majority Zulu wards they have contested, they haven’t even won more than 2%.

Although hurting the IFP and also being a significant headache for the EFF, reversing many of their gains and taking many of their supporters, the party’s existence is truly a nightmare for the ANC. If the polling and by-elections repeat themselves on election day, they are set to take hundreds of thousands of votes away from the ANC in KZN alone.

Electoral shifts and looming Coalition Chaos

The MK party has significantly changed the landscape of South African politics. The size of Zuma’s Zulu base means that even if he’s disliked by most of the public, the loyalty of his supporters leaving the ANC could take 10% off of the ANC’s support and a few percentage points off the vote shares of the EFF and IFP. The ANCs changing voter coalition can’t sustain a decline in both black turnout and the youth vote in addition to declining Coloured support and now Zulu voters leaving the party. Before Zuma’s endorsement of the MK party, the debate was centred on if the ANC was going to fall below 50%, now the debate is not if, but instead by how far below 50% they will fall?

In KZN, the fragmentation of the Zulu vote among four major parties carries significant ramifications in terms of the electoral performance of all parties and coalition agreements. No major party will find it easy to find comfortable ideological or political partners to govern with and there is no easy way for any party to get over 50%. Alot hinges on the motivations of the MK party and if the personal rift between Zuma and the ANC is too large for them to govern together; if that is the case, the ANC will have to go with the IFP or DA at the very least to stay in power there, but with that, ideological differences may get in the way. Whether the ANC is amenable to forming a coalition with a party whose leadership has historically engaged in acrimonious conflicts with them remains uncertain too.

Nationally, a similar, but less dramatic picture emerges. If the ANC wishes to stay in government, they can no longer look to just some of their smaller allied parties, which could have been possible when they were polling in the high 40s, but now given the huge number of votes the MK party is set to win, to stay in power, they must reach out to  parties like the EFF, DA and maybe even MK or a combination of several to form a government. In recent weeks, the possibility of an ANC-DA coalition seems even more likely, with the Multi-Party Charter — a coalition agreement between several opposition parties — still failing to get above 50% and the DA increasingly anxious about a potential MK-EFF-ANC coalition.

However, making grand predictions about coalitions will be tricky given we don’t know what the results will be and what the personal relationships between parties will be or their motivations. All that is certain is that the ANC will lose its majority and is unlikely to get it back in future elections. The era of total political dominance for the ANC has come to a chaotic end. In Jacob Zuma, the ANC have created their own electoral demise through years of supporting him and overlooking his identity based zulu politics. Now with Zuma’s steadfast determination to catapult the MK party into parliament, they have no way of seemingly stopping him or those very same methods being used to win over ANC voters in the political arena.

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