South African Court Disqualifies Jacob Zuma From Contesting May 29 Elections Over Criminal Conviction

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Former South African President Jacob Zuma has been disqualified from running for a seat in Parliament in next week’s national election due to a previous criminal conviction, as ruled by the country’s highest court on Monday.

This decision by the Constitutional Court is likely to heighten political tensions ahead of a potentially pivotal vote for Africa’s most advanced economy.

The court determined that a constitutional provision disqualifying individuals from standing for Parliament if they have been sentenced to more than 12 months in prison without the option of a fine applies to Zuma, now 82. In 2021, Zuma was sentenced to 15 months in prison for contempt after refusing to testify at a judicial inquiry into government corruption.

Zuma cannot serve as a lawmaker until five years after his criminal sentence was completed, the Johannesburg-based Constitutional Court stated. The ruling comes just nine days ahead of the May 29 election.

Zuma, once the leader of South Africa’s ruling African National Congress (ANC), was forced out of his leadership role in 2017 and resigned as president in 2018 amidst a cloud of corruption allegations. He returned to politics late last year with a new party, uMkhonto weSizwe (MK) and renewed his fierce criticism of the ANC and current President Cyril Ramaphosa, who succeeded him as both party leader and the country’s president.

Although there has been no immediate reaction from Zuma himself, the secretary-general of Zuma’s new MK party said, “This is the highest court in the land and we can’t challenge this decision, but we’ll make our decision as an executive on what to do from here onwards, dictated by Jacob Zuma.”

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Next week’s election could be South Africa’s most significant in 30 years, with the ANC facing the biggest challenge to its long-standing rule since the end of apartheid in 1994. The ANC is struggling to maintain its parliamentary majority, and the election might force the country into a national coalition government for the first time since apartheid was dismantled.

Zuma’s new party, uMkhonto weSizwe (Spear of the Nation), or the MK Party, poses a fresh threat to the ANC. Although the Constitutional Court ruling prevents Zuma from serving as a lawmaker, it does not stop the MK Party from contesting the election.

The party launched its manifesto at a soccer stadium on Saturday, with Zuma at the center of the rally. South Africa’s independent electoral commission that governs its elections said Zuma’s image could remain on the party’s election regalia, but his name would be removed from its list of proposed candidates.

South Africans vote for parties rather than directly for their president. The parties then receive seats in Parliament according to their share of the vote, and the president is elected by lawmakers. The ANC has held the majority since 1994, but if it receives less than 50% of the vote this time, it will need a coalition to form a government and reelect Ramaphosa for a second and final term.

While Zuma’s MK Party is not expected to overtake the ANC, it could erode the ruling party’s vote share, complicating its efforts to retain a majority. Zuma still enjoys significant support, and the latest court ruling increases political tensions, especially after some MK Party officials suggested they would reject any decision disqualifying Zuma from being a candidate.

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South Africa has held credible, peaceful elections since it became a democracy in 1994. The case over whether Zuma’s criminal sentence disqualified him from the election arose because he had no option to appeal the 2021 ruling. Initially disqualified by the electoral commission, he successfully challenged that decision at the Electoral Court. Monday’s ruling overturned that decision and confirmed his disqualification.

Zuma led South Africa from 2009 to 2018 but stepped down under internal pressure from the ANC amid allegations of widespread government graft during his tenure. His refusal to testify at a judicial inquiry into those graft allegations led to his contempt sentence. The sentence triggered a week of looting and rioting in two provinces, resulting in the deaths of more than 350 people, some of the worst violence since the end of apartheid. Zuma was released on medical parole after serving two months of his 15-month sentence.

Additionally, Zuma faces separate corruption charges from before his presidency. He is expected to go on trial next April and has pleaded not guilty.

Melissa Enoch

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