Legal challenge and political tensions rise as South Africa’s Court decides Jacob Zuma’s eligibility to run in upcoming election

By Esther Muhozi
On 10 May 2024 at 01:55

On Friday, South Africa’s Supreme Court was engaged in an appeal to determine whether former President Jacob Zuma should be disqualified from running for office. This legal battle comes at a time of heightened political tension ahead of what may be the closest election in recent decades.

At 82, Zuma leads uMkhonto we Sizwe (MK), a new opposition party that has quickly emerged as a significant player in the upcoming May 29 election.

However, election officials contend that Zuma, whose political career has been marred by corruption, should be excluded from the election due to a 2021 conviction for contempt of court.

The appeal follows a decision from a lower court in April that ruled in favor of Zuma, escalating anxieties about the upcoming election, viewed as the most competitive since the start of democracy in 1994. The unrest and violence that followed Zuma’s 2021 imprisonment, which resulted in over 350 deaths, have sparked concerns about potential disturbances this year.

Supporters of Zuma, signaling their readiness to protest adverse outcomes, gathered outside the court, showing their support through chants and dances, clad in the green and black of the MK party.

During the court proceedings, Zuma’s legal representatives argued for the recusal of six judges they claimed were biased, but the court dismissed this request without explanation.

The central issue in this case is whether Zuma is barred by a constitutional rule that prevents anyone sentenced to more than 12 months in prison from serving in parliament. This ban expires five years after the completion of the sentence. While the electoral commission insists this applies to Zuma, his lawyers successfully argued in the lower electoral court that it does not apply since his sentence was not subject to appeal and was reduced by a remission.

The decision on this matter is expected to take several days. Legal expert Ben Winks emphasized that the constitution’s language does not consider the actual duration served in prison, noting Zuma’s early release on medical parole after just two months.

Zuma’s new party is poised to challenge the ruling African National Congress (ANC) by leveraging his continued popularity, potentially driving the ANC’s vote share below 50 percent for the first time in a national election and forcing it to seek coalition partners.

This shift comes as the ANC faces declining support in the polls amid a struggling economy and persistent allegations of corruption and mismanagement. According to a recent Ipsos poll, the ANC is at 40.2 percent, followed by other major parties, with MK trailing at 8.4 percent.

The electoral commission has stated that its appeal is not politically motivated but seeks to clarify the law to ensure the integrity of the upcoming elections, where South Africans will vote for a new parliament that will then select the president.

Jacob Zuma wants to lead South Africa again, but the Electoral Commission insists he is disqualified.