Zuma blasts judiciary, backs ANC in first speech after parole

Durban (South Africa) (AFP) –


Ex-president Jacob Zuma on Thursday lashed South Africa's judiciary but urged voters to back the ruling ANC in local elections in his first public address since gaining parole from a prison term last month.

Zuma, whose whereabouts are unclear, made an appearance by video link after several thousand supporters gathered for a "welcome back" prayer in the eastern port city of Durban.

"Today we are state governed by those who know what it is like to be oppressed and denied fundamental human rights," said Zuma, a former apartheid fighter.

"It is this state that has imprisoned me for contempt of court without trial. Something has gone terribly wrong in our country," he declared.

Officially, no one knows where the ex-president is serving his parole, granted two months into a 15-month prison sentence for snubbing a graft probe into his 2009-18 presidency.

The 79-year-old was released in early September on the grounds of ill health.

According to rumour, he returned to his $17 million (14.7 million euros) estate in rural Nkandla, some 200 kilometres (125 miles) inland.

Thursday's speech was Zuma's first public appearance since his release. It was broadcast on television and played through speakers at the event, which was organised by his foundation.

"The fact that you have come to support me with prayers means a lot to me," Zuma said in a rambling hour-long address.

- 'Cracks in society' -

Usually energetic, Zuma appeared subdued in a casual patterned shirt and said he was "under very strict parole conditions."

He lambasted the judiciary for ordering his imprisonment and criticised the graft investigations against him.

But he also urged South Africans to vote for the African National Congress (ANC) -- the party that drove the fight against apartheid and which he once led.

South Africans head to the polls on November 1 to elect councillors for more than 250 municipalities across the country.

The vote will be a barometer of the ANC's popularity after party infighting and shocking violence and looting that followed Zuma's jailing in July.

The unrest killed at least 350 people and dealt a crippling blow to the economy.

Zuma, pictured in May at his corruption trial in Pietermaritzburg. He faces 16 charges relating to the 1999 purchase of fighter jets, patrol boats and military gear
Zuma, pictured in May at his corruption trial in Pietermaritzburg. He faces 16 charges relating to the 1999 purchase of fighter jets, patrol boats and military gear PHILL MAGAKOE POOL/AFP

Zuma said the riots showed that "cracks in society are widening."

He warned that voting for opposition or independent candidates would play in the hand of "our enemies" and "make the ANC smaller."

The party has ruled South Africa since the advent of democracy 27 years ago.

But it is struggling to regain its former glory and hemorrhaged votes during general elections in 2019. It had also fared poorly in 2016 local polls.

- Grassroots loyalty -

During apartheid, Zuma was jailed for 10 years on Robben Island alongside Nelson Mandela, later to become South Africa's first black president.

He then fled into exile and became the ANC's feared head of intelligence, before returning as white-minority rule came to an end.

Zuma's supporters, sweltering in the heat at the People's Park near Durban's beachfront, vowed undying loyalty to their hero.

Veterans of the ANC's apartheid-era armed wing, Umkhonto we Sizwe, paraded in camouflage military uniforms, chanting struggle songs.

"Jacob Zuma is our commander and will always be," said veteran Frank Dlamini, 55.

"We were ready to fight and die for our country. So is Mr Zuma," he told AFP.

"He's too old to be in jail and arrested. If they don't free him, I'll do something for him," said Lungiswa Mgidi, a traditional healer.

People sing during a collective 'welcome prayer' for Zuma
People sing during a collective 'welcome prayer' for Zuma GUILLEM SARTORIO AFP

But Zuma's failure to show up physically on Thursday was also a disappointment.

After leaving supporters waiting in the sun for hours, his address coincided with winds that ripped through the park, kicking up sand, and few stayed around to listen to the end.

Details of Zuma's medical condition have not been revealed. But lawyers have used ill health to justify his absence from a separate long-running graft case.

The trial -- relating to an arms purchase when he was deputy president in the 1990s -- kicked off in May after numerous postponements.

But Zuma failed to appear in court for the last hearing in September, raising ire among exasperated prosecutors.