JOHANNESBURG – Beleaguered former South African President Jacob Zuma says he is ready to make a surprise return to politics by standing for a top position at the ruling African National Congress' conference in December — if he is nominated by party members.
The 80-year-old Zuma was president from 2009 to 2018 before he was forced to resign amid wide-ranging allegations of corruption in government and state-owned institutions.
He was sentenced to 15 months in prison last year for defying a court order to testify at a judicial commission investigating corruption during his tenure, and has since been released on medical parole.
Zuma is also facing trial for corruption in a separate case involving a major arms deal the South African government was negotiating more than 20 years ago, around the time Zuma was a deputy president of South Africa.
In a statement released late Monday, Zuma said some ANC members approached him to consider contesting the position of party chairman at the end of the year.
“I have indicated that I will be guided by the branches of the ANC and that I will not refuse such a call should they deem it necessary for me to serve the organization again at that level or any other,” Zuma said.
The December meeting is expected to be crucial to the future of the ANC and current President Cyril Ramaphosa, who faces stiff opposition in getting reelected as party leader and staying on as the country's president.
Zuma has been critical of his successor, and the pair are seen to be part of opposing factions within a divided ANC.
Zuma also endorsed his ex-wife, current government minister Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, to stand for president of the ANC against Ramaphosa.
Ramaphosa's struggle to get a grip on corruption, a scandal of his own involving the theft of a large amount of cash from his ranch, and an ongoing electricity crisis that has recently left Africa's most developed economy in power blackouts for up to 10 hours a day all have weakened his standing.
Parliament has formed a three-person panel to investigate if Ramaphosa has a case to answer in the ranch scandal, in which he is accused of money laundering and breaking foreign currency laws by holding cash in U.S. dollars at the property.
He also is accused of bribery for allegedly attempting to cover up the theft of the money to hide its existence. He has confirmed the theft took place and denied any wrongdoing but dodged questions seeking specific information about the incident. Ramaphosa said the money came from the sale of animals on his game farm.
No criminal charges have been brought against Ramaphosa, but Parliament could impeach him if lawmakers find he broke his oath of office. The South African leader is scheduled to appear in Parliament on Thursday to answer more questions from lawmakers about the theft.
Zuma is still popular among some factions of the ANC and at the grassroot level in some regions. It's unclear how he would deal with an ANC rule that anyone facing criminal charges is ineligible to stand for leadership positions. The rule also demands that those occupying leadership positions should “step aside” from their positions if they are charged.
The corruption charges Zuma faces are linked to a 1999 arms deal, and the case covers a time when he was a political figure on the rise and then deputy president. He is accused of receiving bribes from French arms manufacturer Thales to provide political protection for the multi-billion dollar deal.
Zuma has denied the charges and has moved to have the prosecutor taken off the case, claiming he is biased.