South Africa’s ruling ANC takes rival party to court in fractious buildup to election

FILE - Former South African President Jacob Zuma speaks during a press conference in Soweto, South Africa, on Dec. 16, 2023, where Zuma gave his backing to a new party for this year's national elections. South Africa's ruling African National Congress is taking the independent electoral body and a rival political party fronted by the country's former leader, Zuma, to court, underscoring a fractious buildup to what could be its most pivotal election in 30 years. (AP Photo/Themba Hadebe, File)

FILE – Former South African President Jacob Zuma speaks during a press conference in Soweto, South Africa, on Dec. 16, 2023, where Zuma gave his backing to a new party for this year’s national elections. South Africa’s ruling African National Congress is taking the independent electoral body and a rival political party fronted by the country’s former leader, Zuma, to court, underscoring a fractious buildup to what could be its most pivotal election in 30 years. (AP Photo/Themba Hadebe, File)

CAPE TOWN, South Africa (AP) — South Africa’s ruling African National Congress is taking the independent electoral body and a rival political party fronted by a former president to court, underscoring a fractious buildup to what could be the country’s most pivotal election in 30 years.

The ANC says the new uMkhonto weSizwe (Spear of the Nation) party did not meet criteria when it was registered in September. The case at the Electoral Court in the central city of Bloemfontein opened on Tuesday.

It could see the new party, also known as MK and led by South African ex-president and former ANC leader President Jacob Zuma, deregistered and barred from standing in the May 29 national election. MK officials have said they would not accept being disqualified, with one threatening “civil war.”

MK has roiled the ANC by using the name of its now disbanded military wing that was founded by Nelson Mandela. The ANC is challenging the use of the uMkhonto weSizwe name and a logo that is very similar to that of its old military wing in a separate court case dealing with copyright infringement.

The decision by Zuma to pledge his support to MK added another element to the bitter rivalry. The parties have traded insults over the last few months. ANC Secretary-General Fikile Mbalula called Zuma “the most destructive person” for South Africa’s democratic progression and referred to officials in the new party as his “chihuahuas.”

Zuma was forced to step down as South Africa’s leader in 2018 amid corruption allegations and is currently on trial for graft, although that case has faced long delays. He has been highly critical of the ANC under his successor, current South African President Cyril Ramaphosa.

Zuma was suspended from the ANC after publicly backing MK. He attended Tuesday’s hearing at the Electoral Court, as did Mbalula.

The ANC has governed South Africa for 30 years since the end of the apartheid system of racial segregation in 1994, but is expected to face its sternest test in this year’s vote. Several polls predict that the ANC will lose its majority for the first time and be forced into a coalition to remain in government.

The most recent poll conducted in February and March said MK could become the third biggest party in South Africa after its first national election, boosted by large support in Zuma’s home KwaZulu-Natal province, where it is expected to eat into the ANC’s vote.

The ANC has denied the court case is a reaction to the political threat posed by MK and Zuma.

MK’s response to the court case also has troubled South Africans, especially comments made by Visvin Reddy, a party official in KwaZulu-Natal. “Hear me very carefully,” Reddy said in a speech earlier this month. “This country will be turned into civil war the day that MK is not allowed to campaign and be on the ballot paper. No one will vote. No one in this country will vote. We will make sure of it.”

Reddy later apologized but the threat of violence as a result of Zuma’s claims of injustice are taken seriously after more than 350 people died in a week of rioting in 2021 when the former president was sent to jail for contempt of court.

The looting, burning and killing was South Africa’s worst unrest since the last days of apartheid. A report linked the violence to anger over poverty and unemployment, but some close to Zuma were accused of instigating it.

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