South Africa opposition group claims Russia is funding Jacob Zuma’s party

South Africa opposition group claims Russia is funding Jacob Zuma’s party

South Africa’s opposition Democratic Alliance has accused former president Jacob Zuma’s uMkhonto weSizwe (MK) party, whose spectacular electoral debut has upended the country’s politics, of receiving campaign finance from Moscow.

John Steenhuisen, the DA leader, told the Financial Times in an interview that Zuma’s party, founded six month ago, had been extremely well funded from the first voter registration drive in January when it was only weeks old.

“I’m certain that money has flown into their accounts from Russia,” said Steenhuisen, adding that the MK party had gazebos, branded clothing and other costly electoral supplies from the first day of its campaign. “This is not some mom and pop organisation. I definitely think there is Russian money,” he said, though he conceded there was no proof.

Nhlamulo Ndhlela, MK party spokesperson, was adamant it had received no funding or support from Russia.

“President Zuma and President [Vladimir] Putin have enjoyed a relationship that goes back 40 years. They’re friends. But that’s not the same as the Russian government supporting the MK party,” he said.

On Steenhuisen’s accusation, Ndhlela said the DA leader was seeking to deflect from MK’s belief that “the west” had assisted in manipulating the South African election. He said the MK would elaborate on this allegation when it lodges court papers contesting the election results in the coming days. 

Russian President Vladimir Putin shakes hands with Jacob Zuma
Jacob Zuma, right, has long-standing ties with Vladimir Putin, calling the Russian president ‘a man of peace’ © Alexander Joe/AFP via Getty Images

MK has not lodged declarations of donations with the Electoral Commission of South Africa (IEC), unlike other large parties in the election. All parties are obliged to report donations of more than R100,000 ($5,300).

Sy Mamabolo, IEC chief electoral officer, said there had been questions over the source of MK’s funding but that no official investigation had been launched.

“They haven’t made any declarations,” he told the FT. “We’re bound by the legal framework, which is that we cannot launch an investigation until either there is an official complaint, which we haven’t had, or an auditor flags this to us.”

Herman Mashaba, leader of the ActionSA party, said there were big questions over where Zuma’s party got its funding. “The MK party spent lavishly in this election, yet they have made no declarations to the IEC. This doesn’t make sense. There has been plenty of talk where this came from, and we don’t have hard evidence yet, but they ought to explain it.”

Zuma, whose party got nearly 15 per cent of the vote, has made no secret of his close affiliation with Putin or his long association with Russia. As a member of the ANC’s armed wing, also called MK, in the late-1970s, Zuma did a military training course in the then Soviet Union.

Social media accounts on X that formerly promoted Russian talking points switched to amplifying messages of support for Zuma’s party during the election campaign, according to the London-based Centre for Information Resilience.

Duduzile Sambudla-Zuma, one of Zuma’s daughters, who is seen as an important figure in MK, previously described Putin as “Africa’s saviour”. She was the “main amplifier of the #IStandwithPutin trend in South African communities on Twitter”, CIR said in a report last year.

Neither Zuma nor Sambudla-Zuma could be reached for comment.

Priyal Singh, a senior researcher at the Institute for Security Studies think-tank, said: “We really can’t be definitive at this stage, but it wouldn’t be surprising if the MK party had received Russian funding, given the close interpersonal links between Zuma and Putin.”

Singh said Russia would consider it important to have someone of Zuma’s stature in South Africa who could potentially further Moscow’s commercial or ideological interests.

Supporters of the MK party wave flags
Supporters of the MK party celebrate in Kwaximba ahead of the election results announcement © Rajesh Jantilal/AFP/Getty Images

Under Zuma’s presidency, from 2009-2018, South Africa joined the Brics bloc of nations along with Brazil, Russia, India and China. Zuma also campaigned for a nuclear deal with Russia that independent experts said would be financially ruinous for South Africa.

He also signed a R1tn nuclear agreement with Russian state-owned Rosatom to build nuclear power stations. A South African court subsequently concluded the deal was illegal because Zuma had not sought parliamentary approval. The Zondo commission of inquiry into state capture found that Zuma had axed his finance minister for opposing the deal.

MK’s manifesto promises to reinstate a nuclear programme and states that it “stands in solidarity with Russia, Cuba and Palestine in their struggle against western imperialist forces”. Zuma has also supported Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine, calling Putin a “man of peace” who had been provoked by the expansion of the Nato alliance.

Mmusi Maimane, leader of the Build One South Africa party, also questioned the source of MK’s financing. “Someone has funded the MK. The MK ran a few-hundred-million-rand campaign,” he said, adding that the party had far outspent more established rivals. “They have a really sophisticated electoral machine.”

Ndhlela, the MK spokesperson, said the party had very little funding.

“It’s people trying to drive an agenda who say that,” he said. “The only funding we’ve had has been provided by our members, such as individuals and businessmen, who have come together to help us.”

Political analysts say MK, which wants to scrap South Africa’s constitution and claimed last week’s election was “rigged”, suited Moscow’s agenda of undermining the democratic process in Africa.

Russia has developed close relations with several African military dictatorships, which have moved closer to Moscow following the overthrow of fragile democratic governments.