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Jacob Zuma has significant influence, but his political usefulness to MK Party will diminish

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Dr Imraan Buccus is a senior research associate at the Auwal Socio-economic Research Institute and a postdoctoral fellow at Durban University of Technology.

Although Jacob Zuma’s influence was crucial in mobilising electoral support for the MK Party, it is plausible that he may soon be expendable by the party’s shadowy funders and power brokers.

The 2024 general election is all but done and dusted, with just the horse trading left. Some outcomes signal a seismic shift in South Africa’s political landscape, most notably the startling rise of the uMkhonto Wesizwe (MK) party and the dramatic decline in the fortunes of the ANC.

The people have spoken. South Africa’s maturing democracy has shown its capacity to withstand headwinds and aftershocks. The pattern that’s played out with MK’s climb should also be balanced against the volatility inherent in personality-driven politics. One cannot overemphasise the need for enduring democratic institutions to defend and sustain a stable society.

MK set the cat among the pigeons by capturing a significant chunk of the vote. Skilfully named after uMkhonto weSizwe, the ANC’s armed wing during the struggle for freedom, the MK party successfully tapped into a reservoir of nostalgia and its now familiar cousin, discontent. Central to its campaign was Jacob Zuma, whose controversial tenure and continuing legal battles keep him in the public eye.

Zuma’s role as the party’s talisman was more than ably demonstrated. His populist appeal and deep sense of victimhood resonated with a considerable segment of the electorate, particularly those disillusioned with the ANC’s shortcomings. And although Zuma’s influence was crucial in mobilising support for MK, it is plausible that he may soon be expendable by the party’s shadowy funders and power brokers.

Read more in Daily Maverick: Elections dashboard

Among these figures is Zuma’s ambitious daughter, Duduzile Zuma-Sambudla. She has been a fervent supporter of her father and played a pivotal, even if internally divisive, role in MK’s campaign. Her quite apparent political ambitions and influence in the party hint at a potential shift in its leadership dynamics. Modern political movements often rely on charismatic leaders to gain momentum, but such figures can quickly become liabilities once their initial purpose or poster appeal has been served.

This election may well mark the end of Zuma’s political career rather than a second wind. The allure of personality cults tends to be short-lived, especially as democracies mature and voters demand more from their leaders. Although charismatic figures like Zuma can capture public imagination, their influence often wanes as electorates seek payback for their vote – and accountability.

The decline of the ANC in this election in spite of its sizeable share of six million votes is a clear indication of the public’s growing intolerance for corruption and inefficiency. The ANC has seen its reputation tarnished by countless scandals and governance failures. The 2024 election results highlight a desire for change and an urgency among voters that alternatives hold promise.

In this context, the importance of robust democratic institutions becomes paramount. Institutions such as the Electoral Commission, Parliament and the Constitutional Court are the cornerstones of South Africa’s democracy. The durability and independence of these institutions are what ultimately sustain a democracy, providing stability and continuity beyond the tenure of any individual leader.

Although charismatic leaders may inspire and mobilise, they cannot replace the foundational structures that underpin democratic governance. The resilience of South Africa’s democracy will depend on the continued strengthening of these institutions, ensuring that they remain independent, transparent and accountable.

This election’s outcomes also serve as a reminder of the fluidity of political fortunes. Zuma’s legacy is complex; he remains a figure of significant influence, but his political usefulness will diminish. MK’s future will be determined by its ability to transition from a personality-driven movement to a credible political entity with a coherent vision and effective policies.

Moreover, Zuma-Sambudla’s emergence as a political figure hints at both a potential generational shift in South African politics and the horrors of dynastic politics so evident in postcolonial Africa and Asia. Her involvement suggests that the Zuma legacy may persist in some form, but it will need to adapt to the changing political landscape and the electorate’s growing expectations.

May 29 marked a turning point, highlighting the meteoric climb of the MK party and the tumble of the ANC. All should be reminded that personality cults are transient. What matters is the enduring importance of strong, credible democratic institutions. DM

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  • Vic Mash says:

    MK is a tribalist party…only Zulus voted for it…..Zulus have always been a threat to South Africa’s peace and stability….first it was the IFP delaying democracy and now it is the MK who wants to cause instability in the country again….Zulus are South Africa’s nightmare

  • Johan Greyling says:

    It’s really worrying that people will vote for corruption. Do they think they will be better off or are they voting to be hopefully part of it or benefit from it. It puzzled me. Or may be I am wrong about Zumu being corrupt??

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