Why was Jacob Zuma disallowed from contesting elections in South Africa: Explained

People convicted of an offence and sentenced to more than 12 months in prison are ineligible to contest in South Africa’s presidential election.

Published - May 27, 2024 08:55 pm IST

File photo: Former South African President Jacob Zuma

File photo: Former South African President Jacob Zuma | Photo Credit: Reuters

The story so far: South Africa’s top court on Monday barred former President Jacob Zuma from contesting in the upcoming elections. Mr. Zuma was forced to quit as the President of South Africa in 2018 after allegations of corruption. He was found guilty of contempt of court in 2021 and handed 15 months in prison, of which he only served two months. He is still on trial for corruption allegations.

Mr. Zuma was a member of the African National Congress (ANC) party when he was the President of South Africa. Following his resignation, Cyril Ramaphosa became the President.

Zuma’s comeback attempt and disqualification

In December 2023, Mr. Zuma announced that he would not be voting for the ANC. He is now the leader of a new party called uMkhonto we Sizwe (MK) (means Spear of the Nation), named after the former paramilitary wing of the ANC. Following this, the ANC suspended his membership. “Former President Jacob Zuma is actively impugning the integrity of the ANC and campaigning to dislodge the ANC from power, while claiming that he has not terminated his membership. This conduct is irreconcilable with the spirit of organisational discipline and letter of the ANC Constitution,” the ANC said in a statement announcing Mr. Zuma’s suspension in January 2024.

However, on March 28, the Electoral Commission of South Africa (IEC) announced that they had received an objection to Mr. Zuma’s candidature, which had been upheld. Although the IEC did not specify a reason, it reiterated the eligibility criteria for candidates to qualify for the presidential election, which, among other things, says that people convicted of an offence and sentenced to more than 12 months in prison are ineligible to contest in the election. Mr. Zuma’s 15-month sentence falls within this stipulated time period.

A court in South Africa overturned the disqualification, allowing Mr. Zuma to run for presidency. The court’s decision was challenged by the IEC, and on May 20, the Constitutional Court ruled in its favour and barred Mr. Zuma from contesting in the election. The Election Commission had approached the Constitutional Court to seek clarity on whether it had powers to enforce section 47(1) of the Constitution, which states that “anyone who...is convicted of an offence and sentenced to more than 12 months’ imprisonment without the option of a fine” is ineligible to contest in elections. The Constitution of South Africa also adds that “a disqualification under this paragraph ends five years after the sentence has been completed.”

What are the charges against Mr. Zuma?

Mr. Zuma was jailed on charges of contempt of court for refusing an order to appear before a probe into the charges of corruption that mired his nine-year presidency. Violence erupted in South Africa after the former President was imprisoned in July 2021, killing more than 300 people. The rioting by Mr. Zuma’s supporters first started in KwaZulu-Natal province and spread to other parts of the country, including Gauteng province, which has Johannesburg, South Africa’s largest city.

Mr. Zuma was released on medical parole two months later.

Mr. Zuma is also facing an ongoing trial on charges of corruption in a 1999 arms deal. Charges against him were dropped and reinstated multiple times over the last two decades.

Shortly after Mr. Zuma resigned from the post of President in 2018, he was charged with corruption over a $2.5 billion state arms deal. He was the deputy President at the time of the deal, and allegedly received bribes from a French defence equipment company through his financial adviser Schabir Shaik, who himself was jailed for 15 years in 2005 on charges of soliciting bribes on behalf of Mr. Zuma. Mr. Shaik was released on medical parole in 2009.

Apart from the arms deal, there are several other corruption allegations against Mr. Zuma. The Gupta family, headed by Ajay, Atul and Rajesh (‘Tony”) Gupta from Saharanpur, Uttar Pradesh, were at the heart of many allegations levelled against Mr. Zuma. In April 2023, the UAE rejected an extradition bid by South Africa to bring the brothers back to the country and prosecute them.

What do opinion polls say?

According to Gallup, the ANC could lose its majority in South Africa for the first time in 30 years— since 1994— when Apartheid was abolished. The party has enjoyed a majority in the country since Nelson Mandela became the President. It won almost 70% of votes in 2004, but the vote share has been declining since then. Corruption allegations, poor economic conditions, and rising unemployment are the main reasons why South Africans are losing their faith in the ANC.

“The coming elections may serve as a turning point for the nation if the ANC receives less than 50% of the vote, dropping the party out of the majority position it has held and necessitating negotiations to form a coalition government,” the survey noted.

Corruption charges against Mr. Zuma are not the only problem the ANC faces. Current President Ramaphosa has been embroiled in his own fair share of controversies, including allegations of misconduct and a violation of the Constitution he helped to draft in the 1990s.

In June 2022, Arthur Fraser, former state security head and ally of ex-President Zuma, filed a criminal complaint alleging that Mr. Ramaphosa had money in the range of $4 million to $8 million stolen from his northeastern Phala Phala game farm in February 2020, but never reported this theft. The President instead tasked a member of his personal protection unit to conduct an off-the-books investigation. The scandal was termed Farmgate by local media.

Another opinion poll conducted by Ipsos through interviews in March and April 2024 found that the ANC was struggling to retain voters. “Nationally, only 38% believe that the ANC will live up to their election promises, and the party’s support base has long been concentrated in rural areas,” the poll said.

South Africa goes to polls on May 29.

(With inputs from agencies)

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