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Jacob Zuma’s nine lives: How South Africa’s ex-president keeps coming back | Jacob Zuma News

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In March, South Africa’s electoral commission barred former president Jacob Zuma from running as a parliamentary candidate in next month’s general elections due to a previous criminal conviction which rendered him ineligible under the law.

However, just days later, the Electoral Court declared that Zuma was eligible to run, overturning the commission’s rule to the likely dismay of the governing African National Congress (ANC).

It was only the latest twist in 82-year-old Zuma’s long and controversial political career.

Although Zuma led the ANC for years and was a two-time South African president, he is now going up against his former party under the banner of the uMkhonto we Sizwe (MK) party in the country’s most closely contested election since the first democratic vote 30 years ago.

Zuma’s comeback as a challenger to incumbent President Cyril Ramaphosa’s hopes of a second term is not surprising, say analysts. Since 2005, Zuma has been hit with a barrage of court trials and political scandals that might have sunk many politicians. But he has bounced back each time, his “grassroots” approach helping him keep a loyal follower base intact.

“Zuma has had the most ferocious wrestle with the judicial and political institutions in South Africa,” said Ongama Mtimka, a politics and history lecturer at Nelson Mandela University. “There is no politician in the country that has presented a test of powers on the separation of powers like him. [But] these issues prove that the conduct of political power is limited by the rule of law.”

Here are the main scandals, legal challenges and criminal allegations that have followed Zuma over the past two decades:

2005: Corruption and rape charges

Zuma was in his second term as South Africa’s deputy president to Thabo Mbeki in 2005 when he was implicated in bribe payments he had received from a close associate, Schabir Shaik.

A businessman, Shaik was later indicted and sentenced on corruption and fraud charges for soliciting bribes on Zuma’s behalf from a French arms company in 1999. Zuma was implicated in the corruption, and President Mbeki sacked him. Prosecutors dropped and revived the case multiple times. The charges against Zuma are still in place.

Also in 2005, Zuma was accused of raping a 31-year-old, known publicly at the time as “Khwezi”, at his home in Johannesburg. The woman was the daughter of an ANC member.

2006: Acquitted of rape

Zuma was acquitted of rape in May 2006 after arguing in a highly publicised trial that he and Khwezi, who Zuma was aware was HIV-positive, had consensual sex.

Zuma was head of the country’s National AIDS Council and Moral Regeneration Campaign at the time and faced intense backlash over his conduct. He argued that he had taken a shower after the sexual intercourse, incorrectly claiming that a bath reduced the possibility of HIV transmission.

The woman later fled to the Netherlands amid threats and intimidation from Zuma’s supporters. She died in 2016.

Jacob Zuma
Protesters held up papers in support of ‘Khwezi’, the woman Jacob Zuma was acquitted of raping, while he delivered a speech at the announcement of the results of municipal elections in 2016 [File: Herman Verwey/AP]

2007: New party leader amid arms deal case

In September 2006, a court dismissed the corruption allegations against Zuma for procedural reasons linked to the National Prosecuting Authority’s (NPA) delays in filing its charges. But in 2007, the case was reopened after the NPA formally charged him.

This came in the same year that Zuma – who had fallen out bitterly with Mbeki after his sacking as deputy president – won the ANC party leadership at its regular five-year conference.

Despite his rape and corruption scandals, Zuma was backed by left-wing factions in the ANC, including the Youth League, as the party effectively split in two. He beat Mbeki by more than 500 votes, setting the stage for his election as president.

2008-2009: President as on-and-off case continues

The arms deal case was dismissed for a second time in September 2008 after a court ruled that the decision to charge Zuma was invalid. The presiding judge also stated the case may have been politically motivated.

In 2009, the NPA reopened the case for a third time after a Supreme Court counter-ruled and sided with it. However the NPA also formally withdrew the charges on grounds that its investigation was internally compromised.

The same year, the ANC won the country’s general elections and Zuma – as leader of the party – was sworn in as president on May 9.

2010: A child out of wedlock

As South Africa was readying to host the 2010 World Cup, news broke that Zuma was in an affair with the 39-year-old daughter of Irvin Khoza, the chair of the event organising committee.

HIV/AIDS activists criticised Zuma’s actions, and some in the country called for him to be fired.

Zuma, who had three wives, publicly apologised for the affair and for having his 20th child from the relationship. He faced anger from the ANC which had made him promise earlier to not embarrass the party in sex scandals after his rape trial.

File picture of the Nkandla home of South Africa''s President Jacob Zuma in Nkandla
A general view of Zuma’s Nkandla home in 2012 [File: Rogan Ward/Reuters]

2013: Zumaville

As the affair news died down, outrage erupted in 2013 after news investigations revealed that more than 200 million rands ($10.5m) in public funds had gone into upgrading Zuma’s home in Nkandla – his rural hometown in KwaZulu-Natal (KZN).

The sprawling estate – popularly called Zumaville – has multiple buildings, a football field, a theatre, helipads and an underground bunker. Many saw the development as insensitive in a starkly unequal country where millions face poverty.

Public Protector Thuli Madonsela launched an investigation into the construction and in a final report published in 2016 recommended that Zuma pay back the state, as the funds were in excess of security funds allocated to the president.

2014-2016: Re-election despite scandal

The Zumaville saga was still raging when Zuma was re-elected for a second term. Despite the public backlash and attempts by opposition parties to play up the scandal, the ANC won a comfortable 62 percent majority in general elections in May 2014.

Meanwhile, Zumaville prompted a public apology from Zuma, but also impeachment proceedings in parliament – instigated by the opposition Democratic Alliance (DA) and Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) parties.

A vote of no confidence did not pass among parliament members, however, leaving Zuma as president.

2017: Guptagate and state capture

Zuma’s close relationship with the powerful Gupta brothers – Ajay, Atul, and Rajesh – had been under scrutiny for years.

The wealthy family, who emigrated to South Africa from the Indian state of Uttar Pradesh, owned a portfolio of companies that enjoyed lucrative contracts with South African government departments and state-owned conglomerates. They also employed several Zuma family members – including the president’s son, Duduzane – in senior positions.

Between 2013 and 2017, reports emerged of the Guptas using their influence to secure multibillion-dollar contracts, as well as to install friendly faces in government, angering many and leading to protests dubbed “Zupta must fall”.

Julius Malema, the outspoken leader of the EFF, claimed the Guptas were a “colonial power” and Zuma was their chief administrator. Cryptic comments by then-Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa over South Africa’s “state capture” by personal interests deepened the mystery of a shadow government.

In May 2017, leaked emails added to mounting evidence that the Guptas were involved in appointing and firing cabinet officials across ministries. Several politicians separately claimed the Guptas offered them ministerial positions if they would do the family’s bidding.

2018: Resignation

In February 2018, Zuma announced his resignation as South Africa’s president, citing pressure from the ANC, days after the police swooped on the Johannesburg home of the Guptas. Ramaphosa stepped in as president.

The same year, President Ramaphosa directed a commission of inquiry to look into the allegations of state capture related to the Gupta brothers and their hold on the government.

The commission, led by Deputy Chief Justice Raymond Zondo and dubbed the Zondo Commission, concluded in 2022.

INTERACTIVE Jacob Zumas scandals-1706684856
(Al Jazeera)

2019-2021: Jail time? Not really

Zuma’s resignation did not end his scandals, however. By 2021, he was again standing trial for the arms deal from 1999, in addition to being investigated by the Zondo Commission.

After multiple attempts to dodge court appearances in the Zondo investigations and refusing to provide testimony, South Africa’s Constitutional Court found Zuma guilty of contempt of court and sentenced him to 15 months’ imprisonment in June 2021. Appeals by his legal team were denied.

On July 7, as Zuma turned himself in for his prison term, violent protests erupted in his home province KZN. Rioters attacked government institutions and looted private businesses. The violence was also fuelled by COVID-19 restrictions that had shuttered businesses, leaving many without work. More than 350 people died in the riots.

In September, Zuma was released from prison on health grounds after serving just two months, in a move seen by some as attempting to placate his supporters.

In December, a judge ruled in a case brought by the DA that Zuma’s release was unlawful and he must return to prison.

2022-2023: A new party

In 2022, the department of correctional services said Zuma’s jail time was over. But the Supreme Court of Appeal, and later the Constitutional Court, ruled that his early medical parole had been “unlawful”.

In August 2023, Zuma was again imprisoned to continue serving his term, but was almost immediately released under a government amnesty programme meant to ease overcrowding in the country’s jails. Critics accused President Ramaphosa of engineering the release.

Zuma did not appear to be placated, however. He denounced the ANC publicly in December, criticising Ramaphosa, and offering support for the recently formed MK party in a Soweto rally.

The MK has since rapidly gained support in KZN, as well as in Gauteng and Mpumalanga provinces.

2024: Can Zuma be president again?

In January this year, the ANC officially suspended Zuma and sued the MK party in two cases.

In the first, the Electoral Court in March dismissed arguments by the ANC that the MK ought to be deregistered because it did not meet the criteria for the elections.

Undaunted, the ANC has brought a second case, challenging the MK’s name and logo. The MK – or uMkhonto we Sizwe, meaning Spear of the Nation – takes its name from the former military wing of the ANC, which was disbanded at the end of apartheid. The ANC claims the use of that name, as well as a similar logo by Zuma’s party, is unlawful. The case is continuing.

Polls show the MK will be a major threat to the ANC in the May 9 election. The governing party was already predicted to see its vote share fall below 50 percent for the first time, meaning it might have to form a coalition government.

But ultimately, Zuma cannot constitutionally run for president under the MK or any other party as he has served two terms and would risk losing benefits, Mtimka, the Nelson Mandela University professor said. In South Africa’s parliamentary system, people vote for the party, and the party votes for a president.

Zuma, the analyst said, has other motives.

“I doubt that he wants to go back to parliament and forfeit his benefits as a former president,” Mtimka said. “I think what he wants to do is leverage his political capital to support the MK party and frustrate the ANC. He is a very vindictive politician and I think he wants to show President Ramaphosa that he can bring a formidable challenge and frustrate Ramaphosa and the ANC.”

Mtimka added that the MK would struggle to get votes nationwide. Still, according to recent polls, some 70 percent of voters in KZN will vote for MK. Combined with Gauteng, the two populous provinces make a significant chunk of the vote, meaning Zuma might just get his wish.

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