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South Africa's top court strikes Zuma from ballot

 Former South African President Jacob Zuma appears in a courtroom in Durban, South Africa, in April 2018. [AFP]

South Africa's top court ruled Monday that graft-tainted former president turned firebrand opposition challenger Jacob Zuma is ineligible to stand for parliament in next week's general election.

The decision will outrage Zuma's supporters and stoke fears of violent unrest in the run-up to the May 29 poll, already the most competitive since the advent of post-apartheid democracy in 1994.

The top court backed an electoral commission decision that Zuma's previous conviction for contempt of court prevents him from becoming an MP, ruling that the constitution bars anyone sentenced to more than 12 months in jail.

'Not eligible'

Zuma, who left office in 2018 dogged by corruption allegations, was convicted of contempt in 2021 and sentenced to 15 months.

He eventually served less than three months in jail, but the court ruled that this was irrelevant as the constitution refers to the sentence imposed, not served.

"Mr Zuma... is accordingly not eligible to be a member of and not qualified to stand for election to the national assembly," Justice Leona Theron said, reading the judgement.

In a South African general election, the president is chosen by MPs from among their own ranks.

If Zuma is not allowed to enter parliament he cannot become president, even if his newly formed party is able to muster enough seats to propose him.

Following the judgement, the Independent Electoral Commission said ballot papers would not now be reprinted nine days from the vote. Zuma's photo would still appear next to the name of his party, uMkhonto Wesizwe (MK).

"Jacob Zuma is still the party leader, Jacob Zuma is on the ballot paper of MK party and people are still going to vote Jacob Zuma in numbers," MK secretary general Sihle Ngubane told AFP.

Zuma supporters who gathered outside court, some in the military fatigues often worn by MK party members, said they were determined to win enough seats -- two thirds of the National Assembly -- to change the constitution.

A couple dozen of them chanted and danced as they left the premises after the hearing.

'Happy' or 'disappointed'

But opinion polls suggest the party will not do well outside of Zuma's native KwaZulu-Natal province. An Ipsos survey last month estimated support at 8.4 percent nationwide.

The former president drew a 30,000-strong crowd to a stadium in Soweto, just outside Johannesburg, on Saturday, but spoke only in Zulu to his core support base.

"We are very disappointed. There is an agenda, of course, to delay the liberation of black people in this country," MK party member Lindiwe Mtshali, 39, told AFP outside the court.

Since leaving office, Zuma, who was president between 2009 and 2018, an era that for many South Africans has become synonymous with official corruption, has fought several legal battles.

He assumed control of MK to challenge his successor Cyril Ramaphosa's African National Congress (ANC), which has won every election since the country became a democracy but is struggling in the polls and risks losing its absolute majority for the first time.

Outside the court, Neeshan Balton, the 62-year-old executive director of the Ahmed Kathrada Foundation, which had joined the case to provide legal advice as amicus curiae, welcomed the ruling.

"It reaffirms that if you want to be a candidate, you must pledge... that you will uphold the constitution. The former president clearly was not going to uphold the constitution, and we are happy that he's disqualified," he said.

If Zuma's outsider campaign cuts into the ANC's traditional support base, Ramaphosa may be forced to negotiate a coalition with one or more of the many small opposition parties to ensure he is re-elected.

Political analyst Sandile Swana said that Zuma's ineligibility was not going to cost MK many votes.

"What matters is that he is still able to campaign for the MK and be the face of it," he said.

'In shackles'

But the decision might still trigger unrest, observers say. Rioting after his 2021 imprisonment left more than 350 people dead.

"The country is still in shackles," prisoner rights activist and Zuma supporter Golden Miles Bhudu declared, as he protested the verdict outside the court, his arms and legs bound by chains. "This judgement is irrational".

"Should there be any threat of violence our security forces are ready to deal with that," Ramaphosa told local radio, saying the court ruling "is what it is".

The ANC was the leading political force in the struggle against the apartheid regime and many older South Africans remain loyal to it.

But support has slumped amid corruption allegations and soaring crime and unemployment rates. Just under a third of the working age population is unemployed and the murder rate has reached 84 a day.

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