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.


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