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Zuma’s MK Party steals the ANC’s thunder with provocative rhetoric and few clear policies

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By Mashupye Herbert Maserumule

Former South African president Jacob Zuma surprised many by leading a new party to rival the ruling African National Congress (ANC), a party he used to lead, in the pivotal 29 May 2024 general election. The upstart uMkhonto we Sizwe Party (MK Party) caused a major upset for the ruling ANC, especially in Zuma’s heartland, KwaZulu-Natal province, where it unseated the ANC. Political scientist Mashupye H. Maserumule shares his insights on the MK Party.

How did the uMkhonto we Sizwe Party fare?

The MK Party garnered almost 15% of the national vote. This contributed significantly towards reducing the ANC’s majority to 40.2%. For the first time since it came to power in 1994, the ANC got less than 50% of votes in the national polls. The MK Party also displaced the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) from its position as the third-largest political party. It’s now trailing with 9.44%.

In KwaZulu-Natal (KZN), the MK Party leads with 45.32% of the provincial vote, making it a major party in Zuma’s home province. With only 17% of the provincial vote, the ANC has been consigned to the third spot. This is despite dispatching its bigwigs to the province, such as former president Thabo Mbeki, to counter the MK Party. The ANC lost KZN to the MK Party in a big way.

In Mpumalanga, the ANC survived by a whisker. It got 51.0% of the provincial vote, while the MK Party became the second-largest party with 17.1%. It nearly pushed the ANC below 50% as in KZN. These two provinces (KZN and Mpumalanga) have emerged as the MK Party’s strongest support bases.

For a party that was only five months old when it participated in the 2024 national and provincial elections, its performance is no small feat. It performed better than the polls had predicted.

What does it stand for?

Despite being the new kid on the block, the party describes itself as being “rooted in a rich history of striving for justice and equality”. Its declared vision is to transform South Africa into a beacon of equality, prosperity and sustainability.

There are a number of problems with this. Firstly, it’s what almost all parties promise. And the MK Party doesn’t have a coherent policy on how to realise this vision, let alone a clear ideological position to distinguish itself from other political parties.

Secondly, the party has adopted incendiary rhetoric, tinged with populist extremism. For example, it talks about doing away with the supremacy of the country’s constitution and replacing it with “unfettered” parliamentary sovereignty.

This is troubling because South Africa has been on a path of establishing a constitutional democracy based on a set of essential rights for its citizens since its first democratic elections in 1994. It’s also undesirable because parliament ruled supreme under apartheid, passing unjust laws that oppressed the majority black population.

The party also promises to incorporate traditional leadership in the country’s parliamentary system. This is not necessarily to be frowned upon, but it has the potential to upend the country’s constitutional democracy. For, in this system of managing public affairs, the rule of law lies with the constitution.

University of Johannesburg political scientist Siphamandla Zondi sees the MK Party as

just another faction of the ANC that has decided to operate from outside the ANC.

Political commentator Eugene Brink says it’s “Zuma’s get-out-of-jail card”. I agree.

Zuma’s almost two-decades-old corruption charges related to the 1999 arms deal – to acquire and upgrade the post-apartheid military’s equipment – are still hovering over his head and he continues to be in and out of court. He is hoping to win a two-thirds majority to change the constitution, and give himself the power to override the court process. He pits the rule of law and the supremacy of the constitution against traditional leadership.

What lies behind the MK Party’s formation?

The MK Party was launched on 16 December 2023 in Soweto. It was at this event that Zuma announced his association with it. He has since emerged as its leader and has been campaigning vigorously for it as its public face.

The MK Party’s formation is linked to Zuma’s longstanding grievance against the ANC. That came to a head following his arrest and incarceration on 7 July 2021 for refusing to appear before the State Capture Commission. He had defied the order of the Constitutional Court to do so and was sentenced to 15 months’ imprisonment.

Why are the party’s name and logo controversial?

The name uMkhonto weSizwe, MK in short, historically belongs to the ANC’s military wing. It means “the spear of the nation”.

In the early 1960s, ANC leader Nelson Mandela and Joe Slovo, the head of South Africa’s Communist Party, were tasked by the ANC to form the MK.

More than six decades later Zuma’s MK Party argues that the ANC cannot claim exclusivity to the MK name as its creation. For its part, the ANC has claimed that MK is inextricably linked to the ANC.

The ANC tried to stop the MK party from using the name uMkhonto weSizwe and trademark or anything similar to it. It argued that the use of the logo constituted a breach of the country’s Trade Marks Act. But the High Court dismissed the ANC’s application with costs. The ANC was mulling appealing the case at the time of writing.

What are the MK Party’s prospects?

Despite its impressive electoral debut, at least insofar as the 2024 national and provincial elections are concerned, the MK Party’s prospects of political longevity look bleak. This is because of its leader himself, Jacob Zuma (82), its biggest existential threat.

This article was first published by the Conversation:

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