Jacob Zuma MK party

Jacob Zuma addresses supporters during the People’s Mandate Launch at Orlando Stadium in Soweto on May 18, 2024. Image: Phill Magakoe / AFP

Jacob Zuma’s MK party takes fight to ANC stronghold of Soweto

Former SA president Jacob Zuma has staged an election rally in Soweto, vowing to return to power despite a legal challenge to his candidacy.

Jacob Zuma MK party

Jacob Zuma addresses supporters during the People’s Mandate Launch at Orlando Stadium in Soweto on May 18, 2024. Image: Phill Magakoe / AFP

Graft-tainted former South African president Jacob Zuma staged a huge election rally on Saturday, vowing to return to power despite a legal challenge to his candidacy.

More than 30 000 supporters packed the Orlando Stadium in Soweto to hear their champion promise black South Africans more jobs and better wages.

Jacob Zuma appeared tired

“When we reach the final destination nobody will be poor, or unemployed, we are going to be doing things for all of us,” the 82-year-old declared to cheers.

The elderly party leader appeared tired as he arrived in the stadium, escorted by MK militants in military fatigues and traditional Zulu warriors with spears and leopard skins.

But he rallied as he stepped forward to speak, leading the crowd in revolutionary song and speaking for more than an hour before launching into another chorus.

Between 2009 and 2018 Zuma served as a South Africa’s fourth president in the post-apartheid era and leader of the ruling African National Congress (ANC).

But he left office under the shadow of a corruption probe and was jailed in 2021 for contempt of court, a decision that triggered a wave of riots that left 350 people dead.

He has now launched a new party, uMkhonto we Sizwe (MK), to challenge his ANC successor Cyril Ramaphosa for the presidency in the general election on May 29.

In South Africa, a president is chosen by newly elected MPs, but electoral authorities say he should be barred from standing because of the conviction.

The Constitutional Court has been called on to decide the matter after a lower tribunal found in Zuma’s favour, but Zuma’s supporters plan to push on regardless.

There are concerns that if Jacob Zuma, still popular with many of his fellow Zulus, is declared ineligible at this late stage there may be another round of unrest.

Change everything

But the party, named after the ANC’s armed wing during the anti-apartheid struggle, will remain on the ballot and could cut into Ramaphosa’s vote.

“We see him as our Moses from the Bible, the one who led the Israelites over the sea,” said 55-year-old job seeker Nomthandanzo Nhlapho.

Observers do not credit the MK with much support outside Zuma’s native KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa’s key electoral battleground.

But at the stadium in Soweto, the symbolic heart of ANC support, speaker after speaker declared that the party was on course for a two-thirds super majority.

Crowds had begun gathering at 08:00 and by 15:30, when Zuma finally began to lead them in song, the 36 000 capacity arena was packed.

“The MK is going to change everything. We are taking them out!” declared Sharon Mahlobo, 47, a former ANC voter who will no longer utter the party’s name.

Timothy Magawana, a 58-year-old MK militant and ultra-marathon runner, told AFP he had come from Durban to show his support.

The coastal city is 500km from Soweto, but the party had laid on transport from Zuma’s Zulu heartland to ensure a big turnout.

Some speakers paid lip service to the idea of uniting South Africa’s many peoples, but Zuma’s speech was given only in Zulu, the language of most of his supporters.

Many of the musical acts that entertained the crowds were big names from KwaZulu-Natal, and many of the supporters had been bussed in from long distances.

Disco king

But, in a sign of what may lie in store for the ANC at the polls this month, one of the musicians was not a Zulu and also a high-profile ANC defector.

Eric Nkovani, better known to fans as Papa Penny and the king of Tsonga disco, was an influential ANC ward councillor until this week.

Jacob Zuma welcomed him to his new party in a boisterous ceremony, adorning him with a flashy cape covered in MK logos over his gold-sequinned disco outfit.

Late liberation leader Nelson Mandela’s ANC has ruled South Africa since the advent of democracy in 1994, but three decades later faces a tough electoral test.

Corruption scandals of the kind that dominated the Zuma era have hurt the party, as have murders hitting 84 per day and an unemployment rate at 32.9 percent.

By Garrin Lambley © Agence France-Presse