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South Africa elections: Zuma’s MK Party has hit the campaign trail with provocative rhetoric and few clear policies

FORMER South African president Jacob Zuma surprised many in December 2023 by declaring he’d canvass for a new rival to the African National Congress (ANC), the party he used to lead. The new uMkhonto weSizwe Party (MK Party) is on the ballot papers in the upcoming national election and provincial elections.

Opinion polls suggest that the upstart will worsen the electoral woes of the ruling ANC in Zuma’s heartland, KwaZulu-Natal province. The ANC, which has governed the country since 1994, goes into the elections uncertain about securing the more than 50% majority needed to form a government. We asked political scientist Mashupye H. Maserumule for his insights on the MK Party.

What does it stand for?

The party will be barely 10 months old when the elections take place on 29 May.

However, it describes itself as being “rooted in a rich history of striving for justice and equality”. Its declared vision is to

transform South Africa into a beacon of equality, prosperity and sustainability.

There are a number of problems with this. Firstly, it’s what almost all parties promise. And the MK Party doesn’t have a coherent policy on how to realise this vision, let alone a clear ideological position to distinguish itself from other political parties.

Secondly, the party has adopted incendiary rhetoric, tinged with populist extremism. For example, it talks about doing away with the supremacy of the country’s constitution and replacing it with “unfettered” parliamentary sovereignty.

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This is troubling because South Africa has been on a path of establishing a constitutional democracy based on a set of essential rights for its citizens since its first democratic elections in 1994. It’s also undesirable because parliament ruled supreme under apartheid, passing unjust laws that oppressed the majority black population.

The party also promises to incorporate traditional leadership in the country’s parliamentary system. This is not necessarily to be frowned upon, but it has the potential to upend the country’s constitutional democracy. For, in this system of managing public affairs, the rule of law lies with the constitution.

University of Johannesburg political scientist Siphamandla Zondi sees the MK Party as

just another faction of the ANC that has decided to operate from outside the ANC.

Political commentator Eugene Brink says it’s “Zuma’s get-out-of-jail card”.

I agree.

Zuma’s almost two-decades-old corruption charges related to the 1999 arms deal – to acquire and upgrade the post-apartheid military’s equipment – are still hovering over his head and he continues to be in and out of court. He is hoping to win a two-thirds majority to change the constitution and give himself the power to override the court process. He pits the rule of law and the supremacy of the constitution against traditional leadership.

What lies behind the MK Party’s formation?

The MK Party was launched on 16 December 2023 in Soweto. It was at this event that Zuma announced his association with it. He has since emerged as its leader and has been campaigning vigorously for it as its public face.

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The MK Party’s formation is linked to Zuma’s longstanding grievance against the ANC. That came to a head following his arrest and incarceration on 7 July 2021 for refusing to appear before the State Capture Commission. He had defied the order of the Constitutional Court to do so and was sentenced to 15 months’ imprisonment.

Why are the party’s name and logo controversial?

The name uMkhonto weSizwe, MK in short, historically belongs to the ANC’s military wing. It means “the spear of the nation”.

In the early 1960s, ANC leader Nelson Mandela and Joe Slovo, the head of South Africa’s Communist Party, were tasked by the ANC to form the MK.

More than six decades later Zuma’s MK Party argues that the ANC cannot claim exclusivity to the MK name as its creation. For its part, the ANC has claimed that MK is inextricably linked to the ANC.

The ANC tried to stop the MK party from using the name uMkhonto weSizwe and trademark or anything similar to it. It argued that the use of the logo constituted a breach of the country’s Trade Marks Act. However, the High Court dismissed the ANC’s application with costs. The ANC was mulling appealing the case at the time of writing.

What are the MK Party’s prospects?

Opinion polls predict that the MK Party is likely to get 8.4% of the national vote.

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That would make it the fourth biggest party in South Africa – after the ANC, Democratic Alliance and Economic Freedom Fighters. It is also expected to get more than 30% of the provincial vote in KwaZulu-Natal, making it a major party in Zuma’s home province.

Its biggest existential threat is Zuma (82) himself. The party is personalised around him. It may not have any political future without him given that it is relying heavily on the euphoria Zuma engenders by using Zulu ethno-nationalism and populist rhetoric.

The young party is already racked by factionalism, power struggles and leadership purges.

MASHUPYE HERBERT MASERUMULE, Professor of Public Affairs, Tshwane University of Technology