This election cycle has seen a plethora of parties emerging to challenge the ANC, which, in democratic South Africa, has never been in a weaker position.
Newcomers include parties like Mmusi Maimane’s Build One South Africa (BOSA), Rise Mzansi, led by former journalist, Songezo Zibi, and Xiluva, headed by a former DA mayor, Bongani Baloyi.
A former ANC civil servant and CEO of Aveng, Roger Jardine, also launched a new political party at the end of last year: Change Starts Now, which to date is probably remembered more for its lacklustre launch than for any impact it has made in South African politics as yet.
There are other parties from the more esoteric side of the political spectrum, such as the All-African Alliance Movement (AAAM), which claimed that former Chief Justice Mogoeng Mogoeng would be working with the party as its candidate for President of the Republic. (Mogoeng and the AAAM subsequently parted ways, with the AAAM still not being a formally registered political party, according to the IEC’s website).
But more recently, the party which has made the biggest waves is the uMkhonto weSizwe (MK) Party, led by former President of the ANC and South Africa, Jacob Zuma.
It seems to have caused some panic within the ANC, with a number of ANC officials and people from ANC-aligned organisations, such as COSATU and the MK Veterans’ Association, attacking Zuma. In addition, there were reports that ANC officials were trying to identify party members in eThekwini who had defected to Zuma’s new movement.
But is the panic over the MK Party justified? Will it siphon a significant number of votes away from the ANC, and guarantee that it finally sinks below the 50% level in this year’s general election?
Jacob Zuma still has significant name recognition and is still the most popular politician in KwaZulu-Natal (according to a Social Research Foundation poll conducted last year). He was also last year elected as the chairman of the ANC-aligned South African National Civic Organisation in KwaZulu-Natal, but this will not necessarily translate into votes.
Nationally, polls show that Zuma is by some distance more unpopular than President Cyril Ramaphosa, and is as divisive a figure as Julius Malema. Zuma’s popularity in KwaZulu-Natal does not stretch much past that province’s boundaries.
Start-up political parties, whether they start from scratch or that have split from established parties, have generally found the going tough in South Africa, with even the most successful parties only managing to get in the low single-digits.
There are two parties which bucked this trend however, both ANC breakaways: COPE and the EFF. (ActionSA, effectively a DA breakaway, also seems set to perform relatively well in this year’s elections, but time will tell). Of course, COPE is now effectively non-existent and may not make it back to Parliament later this year, but it performed well in the first election it contested in 2009, winning 7% of the vote and coming second in five provinces. The EFF is now a 10% party and was the second-biggest party in three provinces after the 2019 election. It will either grow somewhat, or at least remain relatively steady in this year’s election, unlike COPE, which was already finished by the time it had a second crack at a national election.
The MK Party may not have, however, the ingredients for the relative success of those two parties.
Zuma is the only big name that has defected to the MK Party. The only other somewhat recognisable name that I’ve seen linked to it is Des van Rooyen, the hapless Gupta stooge who was famously finance minister for a weekend nearly a decade ago.
Former ANC secretary general and a staunch Zuma ally, Ace Magashule, and his new party, the African Transformation Congress, have said they have a strategic partnership with Zuma and the MK Party. However, this is unlikely to be a significant boost to the former President.
Conversely, COPE saw a number of prominent ANC members join, including former cabinet members and premiers (although most of these people made their way back into the embrace of the ANC after COPE’s subsequent implosion). The EFF was similar, with prominent ANC Youth League politicians forming the Red Berets while also taking much of the ANC Youth League’s organisational infrastructure with them, providing them with a ready-to-use party organisation.
The MK Party doesn’t seem to have any of these advantages. It must also be asked whether it is likely to draw any Zuma supporters who still vote for the ANC after Msholozi vacated his offices in the Union Buildings in early 2018. It is likely that the majority of those Zuma supporters that left the ANC switched to the EFF or the IFP in 2019 and 2021.
Will those who stuck with the ANC under Ramaphosa after Zuma’s departure be drawn to the MK Party? This seems unlikely. It is also questionable whether the party will succeed in drawing voters who have already voted for other parties.
That said, the MK Party does have two advantages which could see it spring a surprise. Zuma is its prime asset, and this will help it in KwaZulu-Natal. However, Zuma’s popularity doesn’t extend much outside that province. An SRG survey found that nationally, Cyril Ramaphosa was far more popular than Zuma, with the former President having favourability scores similar to those of Julius Malema and Helen Zille.
The second is that it will be difficult for the ANC to paint the MK Party as ‘counter-revolutionaries’ or ‘stooges,’ as the party often does with its opponents.
But these two advantages are unlikely to result in any sort of electoral breakthrough. Many of South Africa’s current problems are the result of the Zuma presidency, and the former president will have a tough task persuading enough people to vote for him so that he and his new party emerge as a credible electoral force.
I could be wrong, but Zuma’s MK Party is likely to be a sordid footnote in post-apartheid South Africa’s colourful political history.
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