JOHANNESBURG — South Africa’s governing party, the African National Congress, moved to kick Jacob Zuma out of the party Monday, punishing the former president for campaigning for a rival political party.
The party announced that it had suspended Zuma’s membership after he helped to form a rival party, of which he has become the “figurehead,” the party’s leadership said. The announcement followed a meeting of its National Executive Committee.
It was not immediately clear whether Zuma would be allowed to challenge his suspension or face an internal disciplinary process. Describing him as “erratic” and “disruptive,” the party said it wanted to “cut its losses.”
The suspension of the former president of the country and the party is a remarkable reproach by party leaders who spent years defending Zuma against accusations of corruption and wrongdoing, even as his tenure eroded public support for the party. In the aftermath of his presidency, Zuma continued to sow political chaos as he evaded accountability and undermined the party’s current leadership through stinging public statements.
The decision to take disciplinary action against Zuma, who became a symbol of widespread corruption and impunity, signals a break from this corrosive legacy and a show of strength by President Cyril Ramaphosa as he seeks reelection.
“Rebel breakaway groupings,” sought to undermine the African National Congress, said Fikile Mbalula, the party’s secretary-general. He said the party would renew itself as the party’s leadership now took responsibility for the failures of Zuma’s time in office.
As the face of a party that has tried to position itself as more radical and populist on issues such as land redistribution, Zuma was also responsible for derailing South Africa’s progress since the end of apartheid, he added.
“As renewal gains momentum Zuma and others, whose conduct conflicts with its values and principles, will find themselves outside the African National Congress,” Mbalula said in a public briefing.
Still, analysts say it will be difficult to disentangle the party from Zuma in the minds of many voters. In recent weeks, while he endorsed an opposition party, some members of the ANC leadership tried to persuade Zuma, 81, to return to the fold, an indication of the sway he still holds.
A former anti-apartheid activist who was jailed for his role in the ANC, Zuma’s political ascension came to represent what critics saw as the disintegration of the party of Nelson Mandela. Still, Zuma remains a popular figure in South Africa, able to command large crowds who view him as an antidote to elitism within the ANC. Zuma led the country for around a decade before stepping down as party leader in 2017 and as president the next year.
With a pivotal national election just months away, Zuma’s removal from the party would also signal the breakdown of the political relationship between Zuma and the party’s current leadership under Ramaphosa.
Last year, Zuma announced that he would not vote for the ANC in the upcoming election, and instead threw his weight behind a newly formed opposition party.
“My conscience will not allow me to lie to the people of South Africa,” Zuma said in a statement read by his daughter Duduzile Zuma-Sambudla.
Yet, even as he denounced Ramaphosa’s government as “sellouts,” he vowed never to leave the ANC and publicly insisted that he remained a member. He said his decision to campaign for another party was to punish the leaders who have “mishandled” the party.
Zuma chose to make the statement during the official launch of this new opposition party in December. The new political outfit bears the name of the ANC’s apartheid-era armed wing, the uMkhonto we Sizwe, meaning the spear of the nation. The party’s colors, green, white, and gold, echo the ANC's. The new party has ignored calls from the 112-year-old liberation movement to change its name. The ANC said it planned to challenge the new party’s name and branding in the electoral court.
Convicted of defying a court order to testify before a national inquiry on corruption in 2021, Zuma is not legally eligible to run for president. While he is not the official leader of the new party, he is its most recognizable champion. Zuma has vigorously campaigned for the new party, particularly in his traditional stronghold of the KwaZulu-Natal province, dismissing questions over his failing health.
In 2021, after serving just two months in jail, Zuma was released from prison on medical parole, after his doctors asserted that he was terminally ill and could not complete his 15-month prison sentence. A wave of protests after his incarceration led to some of the deadliest riots in South Africa since the end of apartheid.
A judge overruled his medical parole. But Zuma only had to return to prison for less than two hours, as he was set free under an early release program that critics say the ANC government implemented to shield its former leader from legal consequences.
Earlier this year, Mbalula admitted that leaders had lied for Zuma when an independent watchdog found that he had used state funds to upgrade his compound in KwaZulu-Natal.
Even in suspending him, the party was slow to move against Zuma, said Mashupye Maserumule, a professor of public affairs at the Tshwane University of Technology in Pretoria, South Africa.
“Zuma is a creation of the ANC,” Maserumule said. Many of the party’s current leaders were in the “forefront of protecting him,” and did not want to see him kicked out of the party, he added.
For some in the party, this is a “good riddance moment,” said a member who spoke anonymously because they were not authorized to speak publicly.
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.