Ex-leader Zuma's populist party becomes top disrupter in South Africa vote

By Nellie Peyton and Thando Hlophe

JOHANNESBURG (Reuters) - The biggest winner in South Africa's election this week may be former President Jacob Zuma, whose newly formed uMkhonto weSizwe (MK) party has exceeded expectations and emerged as a major factor in the African National Congress' sharp drop in support.

MK is not going to win the election and is unlikely to be a coalition partner, analysts say, while Zuma is barred from standing for parliament because of a conviction for contempt of court.

But the party, which advocates nationalising land and banks and scrapping the constitution, is on course to unseat the ANC by a landslide in the populous province of KwaZulu-Natal, Zuma's home region.

With results from about 64% of polling stations in, MK was in third place on Friday with 11.8% of votes. The ANC had 41.9%, down from 57.5% in the last 2019 election, looking set to lose its majority for the first time in 30 years.

In KwaZulu-Natal - strategically significant due to the main ports of Durban and Richard's Bay - MK was leading with about 44% to the ANC's just under 19%. Durban handles around 60% of trade to and from South Africa while Richard's Bay is the largest coal export facility in Africa.

Political analysts attributed MK's success largely to Zuma's popularity, which is rooted in his humble roots and anti-establishment stance.

An anti-apartheid veteran and Zulu traditionalist who sometimes dons leopard skins at public events, Zuma was forced by the ANC to quit the presidency in 2018 following a string of corruption scandals.

His presidency was defined by what South Africans call "state capture" after an inquiry pointed to systemic corruption enabling business people to plunder state resources.

Zuma denies this.

His successor Cyril Ramaphosa vowed to clean up the ANC, but critics say many have found his leadership too timid and constrained by consensus-building. Ramaphosa's government has also struggled with chronic power shortages and dysfunctional ports, that are partly due to a legacy of corruption under Zuma.

As early results rolled in on Thursday, MK supporters sang and danced outside Durban City Hall, in KwaZulu-Natal.

"Mr. (Zuma) did not get enough time to govern. I decided to follow him again because I know when he promises to do something he does," said voter Phumzile Chiya, 52.


MK's platform appeals to voter frustration over racial and economic inequality that has persisted since the end of apartheid.

Like the Marxist Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) party, which has 9.5% of votes so far, MK rails against "white monopoly capital" that it says controls South Africa.

It calls for a referendum on the constitution and proposes a new parliamentary system including an upper house composed of hereditary traditional leaders like Britain's House of Lords.

It would also expropriate "all land without compensation" and transfer it to the state or custodianship of aristocratic traditional rulers, for use by Black farmers.

An ANC plan to expropriate land - most of which is in white hands - failed to get the required two-thirds of votes to go through parliament in 2021, with the main opposition Democratic Alliance and right-wing Freedom Front Plus as well as the EFF voting against it.

"I used to vote for the ANC, but since (Zuma) said he wants to reclaim the land and to change the country's constitution I saw that it was a good move," said Dumisani Xulu, a pastor in Durban.

MK's rise has caught the ANC off guard.

Asked if there had been any surprises in the election results so far, the ANC's Deputy Secretary-General Nomvula Mokonyane told Reuters: "KwaZulu-Natal".

If it were not for MK, the ANC might have retained its majority nationally, said Oscar Van Heerden, researcher and author of books on the ANC. The main opposition DA has only marginally more support than in the last election, as it struggled to shake off its image as a party of South Africa's privileged white minority and appeal more to Black voters.

"A lot of people that are disaffected in South Africa ... want to see a much more radical policy orientation than what the ANC could provide," Van Heerden said.

While a potential coalition between the ANC and MK is possible, analysts deemed this unlikely due to MK's probable demands, such as replacing Ramaphosa and absolving Zuma's legal issues. Zuma is due to stand trial next year for corruption charges related to a 1990s arms deal.

(Reporting by Nellie Peyton in Johannesburg and Thando Hlophe in Durban; Additional reporting by Anait Miridzanian; Editing by Tim Cocks and Emelia Sithole-Matarise)