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Jacob Zuma’s latest statements are populist

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Picture: Doctor Ngcobo / Independent Newspapers / January 28, 2024 – Umkhonto Wesizwe (MK) party hosts its rally at KwaXimba, near Cato Ridge. Former President Jacob Zuma and his MK party supporters have been characterised by phrases like ‘radical economic transformation’, ‘expropriation of property without compensation’ and opposition to ‘white monopoly capital’, the writer says.

By Dirk Kotzé

The uMkhonto weSizwe (MK) Party and former president Jacob Zuma’s latest pronouncements have taken many people aback. It is the season of announcing election manifestos and therefore, the pronouncements are seen as part of the MK Party’s policy framework. The party has not yet announced a comprehensive manifesto.

At a party rally recently, Zuma’s statements included that: pregnant teenagers go to a university to be established on Robben Island; corporal punishment be reintroduced; children have the right to report their parents to the police for abusing them; all men do a year of mandatory military service after school in order to reduce crime; same-sex relations and marriages be outlawed; and African law replace Roman-Dutch law as the common law system.

Zuma and his supporters have been characterised by phrases like “radical economic transformation” (RET), “expropriation of property without compensation” and opposition to “white monopoly capital”.

When he was elected ANC president in 2007, he presented himself as a candidate with a leftist agenda against the “neo-liberal” agenda of then-president Thabo Mbeki. For that reason, he was supported by Cosatu, the SACP and the ANC Youth League. Most of them have left his camp in the meantime.

More recently, the EFF and the African Transformation Movement supported him on a RET ticket and therefore a leftist ideology.

His latest pronouncements are seemingly conservative. That should be qualified as socially conservative. While they do not deal with economic matters, they are directed towards matters of social and family decay, discipline in families, causes of crime and sexual orientation. Interestingly, he did not refer to illegal foreigners or xenophobic issues. At face value, these are matters that speak for adults and parents, not to the youth.

The MK Party, in general, has not yet made overtures to the youth generation, while all election observers are adamant that any party that wants to be successful in the 2024 election will have to appeal to young voters. Zuma is not doing that.

His remarks are in conflict with the Constitution of 1996. Almost all his calls will require constitutional amendments to the Bill of Rights (chapter 2). It illuminates how uncomfortable Zuma is with the constitutional and political dispensation. One can add that it is exemplified by his original statement of support for the MK Party when he distinguishes himself from President Cyril Ramaphosa’s leadership of the ANC.

Zuma wanted a restoration of the ANC as it was much earlier, with a more socialist outlook, and, presumably, a leadership cultivated in exile. Ramaphosa’s private-public partnerships are, in his mind, pure heresy and not the “real” ANC.

Zuma’s sentiments could be explained as a return to traditionalist values or even an Africanist value orientation. He reduced them to a choice between common law systems: African law versus the Roman-Dutch legal system. Many would, understandably, challenge such as a description of the values as an unacceptable simplification.

Over time, Zuma included in his personal value system a strong African nationalist or Zulu sentiment. Others would argue that his latest statement is simply a form of populism. He knows that many older persons will support him on a non-political level for the sentiments. They long for more social coherence and social discipline and therefore, feel that the national Constitution is too progressive for South African society.

While many South Africans might privately support the view, in public no party has made such pronouncements in recent times. It is also unclear whether the MK Party leadership endorses these ideas, but it is unlikely that they will repudiate Zuma under any circumstances.

What will be the decisive factors determining the choice of the voters on May 29? The question is not easy to answer. For some, the economic situation will be most important. For others, service delivery and infrastructural matters will dominate and for others, it is about trust in parties.

The Zuma matters might be decisive for some but not for most. Will they disqualify Zuma and MK in the eyes of voters? Maybe for some, but support for Zuma will be determined more by political factors, especially by how he relates to Ramaphosa’s ANC.

Professor Dirk Kotzé is based at the Department of Political Sciences, Unisa