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May 28, 2024, 11:08am EDT
africa

South Africans prepare to decide ANC’s fate

Phill Magakoe/AFP via Getty Images
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The Scene

JOHANNESBURG – The faces and slogans of South African political parties are plastered across street lights on the streets of Johannesburg.

The signs represent the final push in campaigns ahead of the country’s May 29 election. The vote is dominating conversations with South Africans gripped by a collective sense of excitement at the chance to have their say in the way their country is run.

Several polls predict the ruling African National Congress could fail to secure 50% of the 400 seats in the National Assembly. That would mean the ANC — which has held power for 30 years, since the end of apartheid — losing its parliamentary majority and being forced to form a coalition government with smaller parties.

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The posters range from the literal to the poetic. “Vote EFF,” urges a poster for the left wing Economic Freedom Fighters, featuring its firebrand leader Julius Malema in his trademark red beret. The ruling party’s pitch is similarly straightforward: “Vote ANC” it says, with President Cyril Ramaphosa’s face against a background of black, green and gold to reflect the party’s colors.

The main opposition Democratic Alliance, takes a different approach that eschews photographs in favor of a simple message that presents the election as an opportunity to save the country: “A strong DA can rescue SA.”

Those parties and many others – such as MK and Action SA – are contemplating the possibility that they could find themselves in some form of coalition.

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Know More

The upcoming vote will be the seventh general election since the end of apartheid in 1994. Voters will cast their ballots in national and provincial elections.

The ANC has seen its support, and share of the vote, fall over the last 30 years. Back in 1994, it won 62.5% of the National Assembly’s seats with Nelson Mandela as president. At the last election, in 2019, it secured 57.5% of the vote.

Since then, the party’s reputation has been hit by unemployment at around 33%, which rises to 45.5% for people aged between 15 and 34. It has further been damaged by rising crime rates and corruption scandals. Many voters simply want constant electricity — rather than the rolling power rationing blackouts known as “loadshedding” – and access to clean water.

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The ANC’s falling popularity was reflected in recent polling by Gallup that showed its approval ratings have hit a record low.

Some 27.7 million people have registered to vote, according to the electoral commission.

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Alexis’s view

This vote is effectively a judgment on the ANC and whether South Africans believe it needs to be taught a lesson after years of mismanagement.

My overwhelming sense is that people want some form of change. “Things can’t go on like this,” is a refrain that I’ve heard from several people here in Joburg.

The one word that almost always crops up is “change.” But the change people speak of is nebulous. That’s unsurprising because voters haven’t known any other governing party since the end of apartheid. It also makes sense because the alphabet soup of parties means opinions are splintered.

The array of parties available to voters, freedom of speech and strong institutions are a strength of South Africa’’s democracy. But so many options make it harder for people to coalesce around viable alternatives to the ANC. Plus the fear of certain parties joining a coalition, or divisive figures like Malema or ex-president Jacob Zuma becoming a kingmaker, could encourage undecided voters to stick with the ANC.

This election could decide the way Africa’s biggest economy is run in the next few years. Markets are likely to react if the vote is followed by a period of uncertainty followed by a coalition partner (or partners) that ruffle feathers.

South Africa is also the continent’s geopolitical heavyweight that, as a member of BRICS, is particularly close to Russia and China. The outcome of the election will matter beyond South Africa’s borders.

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Room for Disagreement

Lawson Naidoo, executive secretary of the Council for the Advancement of the South African Constitution, a non-governmental organization, said the election marked “the beginning of a process of political realignment” that could take several years to unfold.

“I don’t see the ANC’s vote collapsing in the way others have predicted,” Naidoo told Semafor Africa. “The ANC will still emerge as the largest party and if it gets 46% of the vote or above, it will be business as usual.”

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The View From Provinces

The biggest threats to the ANC political base lie in the provinces of KwaZulu-Natal, where Zuma’s fledgling MK party is popular, and the economic hub of Gauteng where support for the ruling party has also faltered in recent years.

“Gauteng and KwaZulu-Natal matter so much because they are the largest share of the votes cast at 48% together but also because of the coalitions that will result there,” said Peter Attard Montalto, managing director of Johannesburg research consulting company Krutham.

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Notable

  • Delivering land to Black South Africans is a key election issue, despite the country’s urbanized economy, according to Foreign Policy.
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