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Zuma’s MK party trades on identity politics, invoking Zulu nationalism, traditional leadership

Zuma’s MK party trades on identity politics, invoking Zulu nationalism, traditional leadership
Duduzile Zuma-Sombudla at the MK Party Manifesto launch at Orlando Stadium in Soweto on 18 May 2024.(Photo: Felix Dlangamandla)

Identity politics has been an ongoing theme when it comes to how political parties in SA position themselves, and Jacob Zuma’s MK party is a textbook example. Zuma’s strong show of Zulu nationalism could pose a bigger threat to the IFP than the ANC.

The uMkhonto Wesizwe (MK) party has through its manifesto launch rally at Soweto’s Orlando Stadium defined the direction it is taking in the political landscape. 

Zulu nationalism was a strong feature of the party’s event this weekend where its leader, former president Jacob Zuma, addressed party supporters at a packed stadium.


Former president Jacob Zuma attends the MK Party Manifesto launch at the Orlando Stadium in Soweto on 18 May 2024.(Photo: Felix Dlangamandla)

The crowd gathers as president Jacob Zuma arrives at the MK Party Manifesto launch at the Orlando Stadium on 18 May 2024.(Photo: Felix Dlangamandla)

Zuma, dressed in the party’s black and green regalia, was ushered into the venue by amabutho (Zulu regiments). 

Marking something of a departure from previous public appearances, he delivered his speech entirely in isiZulu, indicating his determination to win over KwaZulu-Natal (KZN) in next week’s elections. 

Zuma addressed the issue of traditional leaders:

“Traditional leaders should be given back their powers since they were stripped from governing. Traditional leaders rule even in countries where there are white people. They don’t have presidents, they have prime ministers who report to the royal leadership of the country.

“We need to restore dignity and allow them to make decisions about their community without the involvement of the government.”

In another attempt to promote traditional practices over Westernised systems, Zuma suggested that South Africa should move away from Roman-Dutch law and that the country’s legal system be grounded in African customary law. 

Amabutho lead former president Jacob Zuma at the MK Party Manifesto launch at the Orlando Stadium on 18 May 2024.(Photo: Felix Dlangamandla)

“We must go back to using traditional courts as a better platform to resolve issues instead of the biased courts of today,” he said. 

Zuma has previously berated the judiciary following what he deemed an “excessive” sentence after being found in contempt of court. Addressing the media after his early release, Zuma described his incarceration as “unlawful”.

Zuma was jailed in July 2021 after refusing to testify before the Zondo Commission but was released on medical parole two months later. This was subsequently overturned. However, President Ramaphosa then included Zuma in a special remission programme and he was set free again.

His arrest sparked widespread unrest in parts of KZN and Gauteng.

MK party threatens IFP electoral hopes

The MK party is hoping to win the support of not only ANC but also IFP supporters at the polls.

IFP founder Mangosuthu Buthelezi valued tribal loyalties and focused on ethnic interests over national unity. This led to a virtual civil war between his Zulu loyalist supporters and ANC members in KZN.

The IFP thrived on Zulu nationalism in the 1970s and 1980s, but eventually began looking towards creating a broader appeal. Under Buthelezi, the party got the majority vote in KZN at the first democratic elections in 1994 but later started to decline. 

The ANC gained popularity in the province and presented an alternative to the IFP. The IFP secured its lowest tally of votes in 2014, but in 2019 it started to rebuild and once again became the official opposition in KZN.

In addition to this, Buthelezi’s death in September last year presented an opportunity for the likes of Zuma to disrupt the political landscape in his home province. 

Members of the MK Party hoist flyers of former president Jacob Zuma at the Manifesto launch on 18 May 2024.(Photo: Felix Dlangamandla)

An MK Party member at the Manifesto launch at Orlando Stadium in Soweto on 18 May 2024.(Photo: Felix Dlangamandla)

Supporters of the MK Party  at the manifesto launch at Orlando Stadium on 18 May 2024.(Photo: Felix Dlangamandla)

Zuma is one of the most senior active politicians in the province and is using his newly formed party to test the waters. The 82-year-old proved his popularity during his tenure as ANC president when the party’s support in the province increased considerably. 

The party had the highest level of support since the advent of democracy when he was the leader in 2009, securing 62.95% of the vote.

In the latest survey done by news channel eNCA, the MK party is polling at 46% in KZN. The IFP is predicted to secure 14.5% of the vote, while the DA, the third-largest party in the province, is forecast to win at 12.2%. 

The ANC dips to 11.1% while the EFF is predicted to get only 6.7% of the vote.

In Mpumalanga, the survey predicted the MK party would receive 12% support and the ANC would lose its majority by garnering only 48.3% of the vote.

The polling also shows that the MK party will receive 1% support in Limpopo, Eastern Cape and North West. The survey was modelled on a 65% voter turnout. 

The MK party recently defeated the ANC’s bid to have the Electoral Court declare the party registration unlawful. The ANC also lost the battle to stop the newly formed party from using the name of its anti-apartheid armed wing and its symbols.

On Monday, the Constitutional Court barred Zuma from running for parliament in the upcoming elections because his prison sentence for contempt disqualified him. DM

Read more in Daily Maverick: Elections 2024


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