South Africans Head to Polls in Pivotal Election

Queue around the block at Wierda Independent School voting station in Centurion, Gauteng.
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JOHANNESBURG — South Africans turned out to vote on Wednesday at various polling stations, including schools, community centers, and large white tents in open fields, in what is considered the country’s most critical election in three decades.

This election, according to the Associated Press, could steer the young democracy into uncharted territory.

The African National Congress (ANC), which has dominated South African politics since leading the country out of apartheid in 1994, faces significant challenges from a new generation of discontented citizens. In a nation of 62 million people, an estimated half live in poverty.

After casting his vote, President Cyril Ramaphosa expressed confidence that the ANC would win a majority and remain in power. “I have no doubt whatsoever in my heart of hearts that the people will once again invest confidence in the African National Congress to continue to lead this country,” Ramaphosa said.

Despite being Africa’s most advanced economy, South Africa grapples with profound socioeconomic issues, including an unemployment rate of 32%. Persistent inequality and joblessness disproportionately affect the Black majority, undermining the ANC’s longstanding promise to end these issues and deliver a better life for all.

“Our main issue here in our community is the lack of jobs,” said Samuel Ratshalingwa, who was among the first in line at the Johannesburg township of Soweto where Ramaphosa voted. “We have to use the vote to make our voices heard about this problem,” Ratshalingwa added.

Polls indicate the ANC’s support has fallen below 50% for the first time ahead of an election. The party may lose its majority in Parliament, although it is still expected to hold the most seats. In the last national election in 2019, the ANC received 57.5% of the vote, its worst result to date.

Ramaphosa has pledged to “do better” and asked for more time and patience from the electorate. Sitting alongside other voters in Soweto, where he was born, he emphasized his belief in the ANC’s ability to secure a firm majority.

A potential loss of the ANC’s majority would be monumental for South Africa, possibly necessitating the formation of a coalition government for the first time. South Africans vote for parties, not directly for their president. The parties then allocate parliamentary seats based on their share of the vote, and lawmakers elect the president post-election. The ANC has maintained a parliamentary majority since 1994.

Nearly 28 million South Africans were registered to vote at over 23,000 polling stations across the country’s nine provinces. Final results are expected by Sunday.

The opposition, though fierce, is fragmented. The Democratic Alliance (DA) and the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) are the two largest opposition parties but are not expected to gain enough votes to surpass the ANC. The DA has partnered with smaller parties to try to oust the ANC, but this outcome is seen as unlikely.

Among the myriad opposition parties is one led by former President Jacob Zuma, who has turned against his former ANC allies. Although disqualified from standing for Parliament, Zuma’s MK Party remains a wildcard in the election.

Despite the challenges, the ANC’s grassroots campaigning and extensive experience in government might still secure it a victory. Many older and rural voters continue to support the ANC. “I woke up at 4 a.m. this morning, took a bath and made my way,” said 68-year-old Velaphi Banda, who has consistently voted for the ANC since 1994.

Ramaphosa reminded voters of the progress since apartheid, noting that South Africa is a far better country now. This election is only the seventh national vote in which all races can participate.

The vote highlighted the country’s contradictions, from the economic hub of Johannesburg to the informal settlements on its outskirts. Despite some delays in polling station openings, the election proceeded peacefully, with nearly 3,000 soldiers deployed to ensure order.

South Africa’s diversity, once celebrated by Nelson Mandela as the “Rainbow Nation,” may now be reflected in its increasingly varied political landscape.