South Africa’s apex court ends former president Jacob Zuma’s bid to be elected again

Jacob Zuma
Jacob Zuma

Johannesburg | South Africa’s highest court on Monday ended a bid by former president Jacob Zuma to stand as a candidate for Parliament in a national election on May 29 citing his previous criminal conviction.

The country’s apex judicial institution, the Constitutional Court (ConCourt), upheld the initial decision by the Independent Electoral Commission (IEC) to disqualify 82-year-old Zuma's candidacy on the grounds of his 15-month prison sentence for contempt of court in 2021.

Zuma had been nominated as the leader of the recently-established Umkhonto we Sizwe (MK) Party, named after the erstwhile armed wing of the African National Congress (ANC) during the freedom struggle that ended in 1994 with Nelson Mandela becoming the country’s first democratically-elected President.

When MK named him as its candidate whose photo should appear on the ballot paper, the IEC declared that Zuma could not run because of the constitutional provision that prohibited anyone sentenced to more than 12 months in prison from being a member of parliament.

On appeal to the Electoral Court, the IEC decision was overturned and Zuma has been actively campaigning for the party, despite a dispute with a founding member that Zuma was no longer the leader of the party.

“It is declared that Mr Zuma was convicted of an offence and sentenced to more than 12 months’ imprisonment for purposes of Section 47(1)e of the Constitution and is accordingly not eligible to be a member of and not qualified to stand for election to the National Assembly until five years have elapsed since the completion of his sentence,” Justice Leona Theron said as she read the unanimous decision of the court.

Zuma was ousted in 2018 by the ANC just months before the end of his second term in 2018 after he refused to step down amid a huge public outcry about his alleged closeness to the controversial Gupta family, originally from India and now believed to be in self-exile in Dubai, as South Africa seeks their extradition to face charges of looting billions from state coffers.

After walking out of hearings at the Commission of Inquiry into state capture in 2020, Zuma was slapped with a contempt of court sentence of 15 months.

He served only three months after being controversially released on medical parole. The incident led to unprecedented violence and looting for several days in Zuma’s home province of KwaZulu-Natal (KZN) and in the economic hub of Gauteng province, Johannesburg.

MK has fared extremely poorly in several by-elections that were held across South Africa in the past few weeks, but analysts believe that in Zuma’s stronghold of KZN, where the majority of the Zulu ethnic group to which Zuma belongs live, the party has a strong following.

The IEC appealed to the apex court to get clarity on the issue, which led to Monday’s ruling.

Legal counsel for Zuma had argued that the remission of his sentence to three months rendered the constitutional imperative inapplicable. This was accepted by the Electoral Court, whose decision has now been overturned by the ConCourt.

President of the ruling ANC, Cyril Ramaphosa welcomed the ruling, calling on Zuma to respect the rule of law.

Ramaphosa has himself been on an intensive electioneering drive amid claims by analysts that the ANC, which has led the country since Mandela’s advent, could lose its majority in this election.

Ramaphosa is bidding for another term as president after he replaced Zuma and subsequently won the last General Elections in 2020.

Ramaphosa dismissed widespread rumours that the exclusion of Zuma would lead to a violent election in KZN.

Sharing this view, senior police officers told local media at a briefing that they were ready for any incident at polling booths to implement a zero-tolerance approach.

The IEC confirmed that Zuma’s face would still appear among the 40 on the ballot paper when millions of South Africans go to the polls on May 29 because all ballot papers had already been printed.

Tens of thousands of South Africans abroad cast their votes on those ballot papers as well over the past weekend.

Although voters could continue to make their mark against Zuma’s face for the MK Party, he will be disqualified from the MK Party’s list of candidates for the National Assembly, the IEC said.

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