When the African National Congress suspended former President Jacob Zuma this week, a top party official portrayed him as a traitor to the ongoing struggle for Black prosperity in South Africa and a symbol of corruption that the organization is looking to move past.
But to Vincent Mthembu, a longtime A.N.C. activist on the local level, Mr. Zuma was the only hope for the party, which has governed South Africa for 30 years, and the country.
“He is the people’s president,” Mr. Mthembu, who owns a construction business in Johannesburg, said on Tuesday. “Whatever that he was doing was enriching Black people.”
Many countries seem to have their Donald J. Trumps these days — brash, populist leaders who, no matter how many corruption allegations or legal troubles they face, attract fiercely loyal supporters.
Mr. Zuma, 81, a former president of both the party and the republic, might well fill that role in South Africa.
Mr. Zuma provoked the A.N.C. suspension by openly campaigning for a competing political party, with critical national and provincial elections just months away. The A.N.C.’s unprecedented move to sideline him will test the enduring popularity and pull of a former freedom fighter who easily won two presidential elections but resigned under pressure six years ago.
Mr. Zuma, who was imprisoned by the former white supremacist regime alongside Nelson Mandela on Robben Island, has been holding rallies with a newly formed party that, much to the frustration of A.N.C. officials, has taken the name of the A.N.C.’s militant wing during the apartheid era, uMkhonto we Sizwe, or MK.
Mr. Mthembu, 44, is among those who could not resist the pull of Mr. Zuma. When the former president announced during a news conference last month that he would not vote for the A.N.C. (but would remain a member), and that voters should choose MK, Mr. Mthembu quit the A.N.C. to follow the former president.
“The A.N.C. is no longer the same A.N.C. that we know,” he said. He pointed to what he saw as a double standard in the party: When Mr. Zuma and his allies are accused of corruption, the party punishes them, but it does not do the same to the current president, Cyril Ramaphosa, and his allies.
Mr. Zuma’s announcement of the MK Party has given hope to South Africans who have grown disenchanted with the political system, said Mxolisi Ngobese, who is part of MK’s ground mobilization team.
“They follow Zuma as their new Moses,” he said.
The A.N.C. holds majorities in the legislatures of the two most populous provinces, Gauteng and KwaZulu-Natal, but political analysts see both as tossups in this year’s elections, where the party could dip below 50 percent, making way for a coalition of opposition factions to take control.
Losing control of both provinces would be a significant psychological and practical blow to the governing party’s hegemony, even if it maintains control of the national Parliament and the presidency. KwaZulu-Natal, Mr. Zuma’s home province, includes the country’s busiest shipping port and third-largest city, Durban. Gauteng, the wealthiest province, includes Johannesburg, South Africa’s most populous city and financial capital.
Under South Africa’s Constitution, Mr. Zuma’s criminal record and the two terms he has already served disqualify him from the presidency. But MK leaders say that if party members want him as their candidate, they would challenge that prohibition in court. The election date has not been set yet.
It is difficult to say just how much support he will attract at the ballot box, but A.N.C. opponents hope that with him as the face of MK, it will pull support from his former party.
Mr. Zuma portrays himself as an Everyman, the champion of the masses who still live in poverty three decades after apartheid. He leans heavily on issues like redistributing to Black people lands that were stolen from their forebears — a redistribution that would mean taking land from present-day white owners.
“Zuma is not just charismatic, but people resonate with him and his character, his personality,” Mr. Ngobese said. “They can identify his achievements when he was the leader of government.”
He also plays the victim well.
Mr. Zuma is facing criminal charges on allegations that he was involved in a corrupt arms deal. An independent watchdog found that he had robbed state coffers to finance massive renovations to his rural homestead in KwaZulu-Natal. And his name has become synonymous with the term “state capture,” stemming from widespread allegations that he had turned state institutions into piggy banks for his allies.
But these allegations sometimes seem only to rally his supporters even more. When he was jailed in 2021 on contempt charges for refusing to testify at a public inquiry on corruption, protest gave way to riots in KwaZulu-Natal and Gauteng that saw more than 300 people killed.
“It is so evident that he has been the victim of political shenanigans and abuse of the legal system in order to target him,” said Carl Niehaus, a close ally of Mr. Zuma’s who was expelled from the A.N.C.
Mr. Niehaus recently joined the Economic Freedom Fighters, a left-wing party formed 11 years ago by disgruntled A.N.C. members. He took exception to the A.N.C.’s characterization of Mr. Zuma as a counterrevolutionary, or someone who attempts to subvert the efforts of lifting Black people out of apartheid-era disparities.
“He has been called a counterrevolutionary by counterrevolutionaries,” Mr. Niehaus said, adding that the A.N.C.’s current leaders “are those who sold out our liberation struggle. This is the last kick of a dying horse.”
The A.N.C. in KwaZulu-Natal believes it is well positioned to overcome any impact that Mr. Zuma may have on this year’s election, said Nhlakanipho Ntombela, the head of the party’s mobilization and election campaign for the province. It has canvassed party members and other residents throughout the province regarding Mr. Zuma, and the feedback it has heard is relief that the A.N.C. was finally taking action against the former president, Mr. Ntombela said.
“He has been a liability within the organization,” he said. “So there is something of relief now that you can focus on the election campaign without an albatross on your neck of having to explain Zuma.”