South Africa: Zuma’s popularity on the rise despite corruption trials

By Patrick Egwu
Posted on Wednesday, 9 February 2022 15:39

South Africa's Jacob Zuma
Former South African President Jacob Zuma sits in the High Court in Pietermaritzburg, South Africa, Monday Jan. 31, 2022. (AP Photo/Jerome Delay,Pool)

Former South Africa President Jacob Zuma is back in court – this time on arms dealing charges. However, with Zuma already jailed in 2021, there are fears of renewed violence from supporters who remain heavily invested in a leader they see as being railroaded by the authorities. 

In July last year, the constitutional court sentenced Zuma to 15-months in prison. A day later, the country erupted in the worst violence since the end of apartheid in 1994. More than 300 people were killed during the unrest that was characterised by looting and arson. President Cyril Ramaphosa ordered the deployment of soldiers to the streets. Months later, police say over 3000 people have been arrested and will be prosecuted.

Zuma’s supporters are opposed to his prison sentence, describing it as a “political witch-hunt”. They are now threatening to organise another round of mass protests across the country if the charges are not dropped. #FreeJacobZuma hashtags are also increasing on social media, with his daughter, Duduzile Zuma-Sambudla, and the Foundation driving massive support for him.

According to the Jacob Zuma Foundation, the former president is the only person in the history of post-apartheid South Africa to be sentenced without a fair trial.

South Africans have been largely divided since Zuma’s trial began. There was widespread corruption during his tenure in office as president from 2009 to 2018, but his supporters believe he is a scapegoat for a systemic problem, a revolutionary hero who should be given a break.

Widespread support base

Despite his corruption trials, Zuma, 79, still retains a strong support base both within the ruling African National Congress (ANC) party and among young South Africans. They see him as a symbol of struggle for freedom and one of the few anti-apartheid heroes who are still alive.

“He fought for our freedom and we can’t let him go to jail,” says Paul Bongani, who was six years old when the country gained independence in 1994. “We want all charges dropped no matter what he has done.”

The president can order the deployment of the army, the arrest of people or the manipulation of the criminal justice system to target those with opposing views, but many of us will never be silenced or intimidated.

Bongani was ready to join hundreds of other supporters to attend Zuma’s trial on 10 August 2021, but the court postponed the sitting. “It’s going to be revolutionary for us all because we are taking the campaign to the court and all those involved in his trial.” Bongani is not alone.

Lucky Montana, 28, has also joined those calling for Zuma’s release. He is one of thousands of young people across the country who form the majority of Zuma’s support-base. “The president can order the deployment of the army, the arrest of people or the manipulation of the criminal justice system to target those with opposing views but many of us will never be silenced or intimidated,” he says.

Members of a campaign dubbed Free Jacob Zuma recently held a press conference asking President Ramaphosa to release Zuma within 14 days.

Sanusha Naidu, a senior research associate at the Institute for Global Dialogue, agrees that Zuma’s strong support base is widespread, citing his hometown of Durban in KwaZulu-Natal, a province located in the southeast of the country.

They draw the highest number and the collective support of the ANC is in the region…

Before his sentencing in July, thousands of Zuma’s club-wielding supporters besieged his hometown and threatened a showdown with security forces should they attempt to take him to prison. Zuma’s decision to voluntarily follow the security personnel to prison prevented a possible bloody confrontation between his supporters and the police.

“They draw the highest number and the collective support of the ANC is in the region,” Naidu says. “I think this is because, to a large extent, of the way he propels himself into the political centre of the party and the way he galvanises his support base.”

“In the aggregate picture, his position in the party and political manoeuvring abilities were important in the kinds of support he is receiving,” she tells The Africa Report.

A divided ANC

Ramaphosa has publicly vowed to root out corruption in the ANC. However, support for the party has been declining even though it still wants to remain historically relevant as the oldest liberation political party in Africa. There are factions in the party backing Ramaphosa, while others remain loyal to Zuma.

What Zuma’s trial means for the party is the ability to renew or reorient itself, Naidu says. “They are still caught in their own existential crisis and there is a sense of holding on, but that is holding on even when you know that you are sinking.”

During the party’s 110th anniversary on 8 January, Ramaphosa acknowledged the challenges facing the party and said it needs renewal to regain support.

“There is a sense of dissatisfaction and loss of trust and deficit in governance with the party means that the party no longer has the legitimacy and credibility and confidence of the people,” says Naidu. “You keep seeing high levels of lack of accountability and corruption.”

Some leading members of the party, who are long-term Zuma allies, have publicly condemned his imprisonment.

We do not agree with the sentencing… It is extremely out of order; it is emotional and angry and we do not think that the sentencing actually speaks to the law.

Ace Magashule, the former secretary-general of ANC and a political rival of Ramaphosa who was suspended by the party in May 2021 on corruption charges, has been a strong supporter of Zuma, even accompanying him for court appearances.

On the eve of his Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) party’s 8th anniversary last year, Julius Malema said it was “painful” to see Zuma go to jail.  “We do not agree with the sentencing,” he said. “It is extremely out of order; it is emotional and angry and we do not think that the sentencing actually speaks to the law.”

Despite having led a movement for Zuma’s removal from office in 2016, the opposition leader said the former president’s status as a first offender with no criminal record should have been taken into consideration.

Rule of law respected

Zuma is still facing charges before the state capture commission over a 1999 arms deal and corruption allegations while he was president. The former president has however repeatedly denied any wrongdoing and described the court cases as “political trials”.

Even so, some South Africans argue that the rule of law must be respected and that Zuma is no exception. Some blame him for doing little to alleviate the country’s widening wealth gap between white and black communities, terming him as a sell-out.

Analysts like Naidu say there is general frustration over whether or not the rules applied in the criminal justice system during the trial have been applied neutrally or authorities just feared a repeat of the violence seen after Zuma’s arrest.

“I think that is why you see the level of support and solidarity for him, but another concern is whether they are supporting him for their own personal and political interests,” she says. “But it could definitely be a factor especially for those who feel that the Ramaphosa presidency has also been caught up in its own stakeholder challenges across the political spectrum and are using this opportunity to push back against his re-election ambitions.”

Naidu says Zuma will continue to find ways to procrastinate the legal process. “I think there will continue to be a frustration of the legal process in this trial and that makes one wonder if he [Zuma] wants this whole process to legally put to rest or end.”

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