Mandy Wiener25 April 2024 | 4:19

MANDY WIENER: Zuma’s (ill?) health holds MK’s success in the balance

Jacob Zuma is MK. Concerns around his health and ability to campaign represent a real crisis for his party.

MANDY WIENER: Zuma’s (ill?) health holds MK’s success in the balance

Former President Jacob Zuma addresses members of the media under the banner of new party uMkhontho We Sizwe on 16 December 2023. Picture: Kayleen Morgan/Eyewitness News

If you drive from King Shaka International Airport into the hub of Umhlanga, the street poles along the highway tell a story. 

Every single pole has at least one and as many as three or four election posters competing for space on it. They are also not just dominated by one single party but rather a wide variety of options – more than any I’ve seen in other areas across the country. The ANC, MK, IFP, DA, FF+, EFF, BOSA, RISE, AIC, and ACDP. You name it. 

The story it tells is of a fiercely contested election in this province, the most populous in the country. There is much at stake in KwaZulu-Natal. It’s a province that wields enormous political influence. There is also deep disillusionment amongst a population that has been hit hard by riots, floods, COVID-19, corruption, crime, and mismanagement. 

The ANC is also facing a real possibility of losing control of KZN and that hypothetical scenario has gathered momentum with the rapid growth of the uMkhonto we Sizwe party led by former President Jacob Zuma. 

The most recent polling by the Brenthurst Foundation puts the MK party as the largest in KZN with 25% of the vote. The ANC is the second largest at 20%. 

According to the Social Research Foundation polling, the introduction of MK has “created a marked change in the balance of power in KwaZulu-Natal”. 

“On both the national and provincial ballots MK has the potential to achieve vote shares above 20% in KwaZulu-Natal. Additionally, the data suggests that it has the potential to become the leading party in KwaZulu-Natal. If the MK party stays at these levels in KwaZulu-Natal, then it will take around five percentage points from the ANC at the national level,” says the SRF report.

What is the appeal of the MK party in KZN then?

Jacob Zuma. That is the appeal. Besides the former president’s leadership, there is very little else that it offers the electorate. 

As my colleague Stephen Grootes points out here, the party’s manifesto is “probably the most radical assemblage of promises of any party likely to win a significant share of the vote in the upcoming general election”.

“It promises to literally remove the Constitution and to dramatically increase the role of the state in the economy. It is incendiary, perhaps deliberately so,” he explains. 

The manifesto is very much an articulation of what Zuma has been saying on public platforms, mostly outside courtrooms across the country, over the past few years. It is very much about his retribution and his annoyance at being recalled as president and not being able to finish his second term. 

Many would argue that the MK party is Jacob Zuma. “Name two MK party members whose surname is not Zuma,” a colleague quipped to me this week. 

So, therefore, the concern around Zuma’s health and his ability to campaign for the MK party represents a real crisis. 

News24 reported this week that concerns have emerged about Zuma’s ill health after he collapsed on Friday and the party had to suspend campaign activities. 

“News24 has reliably learnt from four independent sources that Zuma's ill health has raised concern among doctors and his security team. The fall on Friday, two sources said, was attributed to fatigue and low blood pressure. At least two other sources said it was part of a series of incidents that demonstrated his fragility,” it reported.

Those close to him were at pains to give assurances that the 82-year-old was not ill and that he was just busy or resting. 

It is deeply ironic that those who were desperately trying to convince us Zuma was deathly ill a couple of years ago are now trying to convince us he is fit as a fiddle.

Remember that Zuma was controversially granted medical parole by former Correctional Services national commissioner Arthur Fraser in September 2021.

The question must arise – what happens to the MK party if Zuma cannot campaign for it? Will it collapse like many other splinter ANC parties that have failed to gather momentum? What else does it have to offer without Zuma? This is why the party’s spokesperson has insisted that Zuma is in good health.

Zuma falling seriously ill at this critical time, so close to the polls, could also be ominous. The former president has repeatedly claimed that there is a conspiracy against him, has alleged that he was poisoned and that there were sinister motives behind a car crash he was involved in last month. The July unrest in KZN was triggered by Zuma’s arrest and any insinuation that he has been targeted again could be a catalyst for more civil disobedience. 

A healthy Zuma on the campaign trail in KZN will likely mean increased momentum and support for MK. His face is prominent on those street poles leading from the main airport in the province and his support in KZN cannot be underestimated.