In a widely expected move, South Africa’s governing African National Congress (ANC) party suspended former President Jacob Zuma on Monday, just months ahead of the presidential election.
In a statement on X, the ANC accused Zuma of insubordination and said his suspension was justified because of “exceptional circumstances”.
Keep readinglist of 4 items
The move follows months of turbulence between Zuma and current President Cyril Ramaphosa that has blighted the image of the party that has governed South Africa since the end of white minority rule three decades ago.
Zuma, who still remains widely popular, poses a threat to the party, which has been struggling to command the popular support it once had.
Here’s what we know about Zuma’s suspension, and why he fell out with the ANC:
Why did the party suspend Zuma?
In a statement following a meeting of the party’s National Executive Committee (NEC), ANC general secretary Fikile Mbalula said the party suspended Zuma primarily because he had backed another political party without formally exiting the ANC.
In December, Zuma had denounced the ANC leadership and said he would vote for the newly formed party uMkhonto Wesizwe (MK) or Spear of the Nation, named after the defunct military wing of the ANC that resisted apartheid rule but was disbanded following South African independence. Zuma later said he would hold on to his ANC membership.
That appeared to rankle the ANC, which has seen less support in these elections because of high unemployment and poverty rates in one of the world’s most economically unequal countries.
Zuma is “actively impugning the integrity of the ANC and campaigning to dislodge the ANC from power, while claiming that he has not terminated his membership”, the ANC statement said. “Zuma and others whose conduct is in conflict with our values and principles, will find themselves outside the ANC.”
The ANC leadership also plans to shut down the MK party by submitting complaints to an electoral court and by having the name trademarked.
How did Zuma’s troubles start?
Zuma is a controversial figure in South African politics. His suspension is only the latest in a series of clashes between him and President Ramaphosa, who is also the ANC leader. Here is a timeline:
February 14, 2018: Zuma is forced by the ANC to step down after ruling as president since 2009 following allegations of widespread corruption in his administration: allowing a wealthy family to influence government contracts and bribery in a multibillion-dollar deal with French arms manufacturer Thales. Ramaphosa took over as president, promising to clean up, effectively starting a feud.
June 29, 2021: Zuma is sentenced to 15 months in prison after he refuses to present himself in court during an ongoing corruption inquiry. Zuma calls the trial politically motivated.
July 8, 2021: Violent riots rock South Africa as Zuma begins his prison term. His supporters attack dozens of buildings, including stores and public infrastructure. More than 300 people die in the unrest, eventually leading to Zuma’s release in September on medical parole.
December 15, 2022: Zuma sues Ramaphosa, accusing the president of releasing classified documents about him to the media. The move is widely seen as part of a campaign by Zuma to remove the prosecutor, Billy Downer, who handled the ex-president’s corruption charges related to the arms deal.
December 16, 2023: Zuma denounces the ANC and offers his support for the MK in Soweto, leading to speculations he helped found the party. His announcement comes on the anniversary of the armed wing of MK, founded by former President Nelson Mandela in 1961.
January 29, 2024: ANC suspends Zuma.
How will the suspension affect support for ANC?
The split in the ANC could negatively affect the party’s standing ahead of the 2024 elections.
Zuma enjoys popular support in his home province of KwaZulu-Natal. He also has considerable backing in the Gauteng province. These were the two provinces primarily affected in the 2021 riots, and where the ANC might struggle to win elections this year.
At the MK party launch in Soweto last December, Zuma stated his intention to give the ANC a hard time in the region.
“The new people’s war starts from today,” he then said. “The only crucial difference is that instead of the bullet, this time we will use the ballot.”
Besides the Zuma drama, the ANC, which has won every election since 1994, is also seeing popular support decline among many South Africans. It was already going to be difficult for the party to win a landslide this year in the face of dismal electricity supply, increased levels of violence, poverty and corruption in government.
The Democratic Alliance, the main opposition group, allied with six smaller parties late in 2023, aiming to push out the ANC if it fails to win a 50 percent majority in the elections, in which South Africans first vote for parties, which then elect the president. That coalition poses a serious threat to the ANC’s dominance.
“As a new party, MK has no track record and no access to the kind of resources or organisational capacity of the ANC. And without access to the state it also can’t trade off patronage politics,” Chris Vandome from the Chatham House, UK, told Al Jazeera.
“But in these provinces [KwaZulu-Natal and Gauteng] there is already an expectation that the ANC might lose political dominance,” he said.
“Furthermore, Zuma supporters have shown that they can be agitators and incite violence, and there is a risk of low-intensity electoral violence, especially in KwaZulu-Natal at this year’s polls.”
What next for Zuma?
The former president has not responded to his suspension and it is unclear if he might mount a legal case to challenge the decision.
Zuma challenges it or not, he could be expelled outright. Ramaphosa, speaking to journalists, said the expulsion is the first step in dealing with Zuma’s actions, and other party leaders have said a permanent ban is on the cards, although as the last resort.
Despite his vocal support for the MK, Zuma has officially not joined the party, and claims he is still in the ANC. Local media reports, however, say that the former president likely instigated the formation of the new party to rival ANC.
Zuma’s stronghold of KwaZulu-Natal and Gauteng are seen as election kingmakers of sorts. These provinces are the most populous in the country, making up 44 percent of the total population.
The MK will prove a significant distraction for the ANC in KwaZulu-Natal and Gauteng, regardless of whether it scores an electoral victory. Already, the ANC is having to battle the Democratic Alliance and the Inkatha Freedom Party, which is mostly supported by Zulus in the KwaZulu-Natal province.
Vandome from the Chatham House said it is also unlikely that Zuma would be able to exercise the kind of influence he used to have should he rejoin the ANC.
“His [Zuma’s] waning influence within the ANC was a factor in his shifting alliance – the calculation that his personal interests are best served by being an external disrupter rather than exercising internal influence,” he said.
“It also speaks volumes about the ANC that they stood by the former president through his trial, and defended his poor performance as president, but his disloyalty to the movement is what they punish.”