ANC Faces Toughest Election Yet Amidst Voter Disillusionment




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CAPE TOWN, South Africa — As South Africa approaches a critical election this month, the ruling African National Congress (ANC) is bracing for its toughest challenge yet.

Most opinion polls, according to Associated Press, predict that the ANC, which has dominated South African politics for 30 years, will lose its parliamentary majority for the first time.

Once hailed under the leadership of Nelson Mandela as a symbol of hope for the Black majority post-apartheid, the ANC’s reputation has suffered due to record levels of unemployment, widespread poverty, failing government services, and over a decade of corruption scandals. These issues have left voters increasingly disillusioned.

President Ramaphosa’s Re-election Bid

President Cyril Ramaphosa, who hopes to secure re-election on May 29, faces the possibility of the ANC needing to form a coalition government if it fails to secure a majority. This would be unprecedented in South Africa and could complicate policymaking in the continent’s most advanced economy.

South Africans do not vote directly for their president. Instead, they vote for parties, which are then allocated seats in Parliament based on their share of the vote. Lawmakers subsequently elect the president.

A President Under Pressure

Ramaphosa, a senior ANC figure in the early 1990s and once seen as a protégé of Mandela, returned to politics as South Africa’s deputy president in 2014 after a successful business career. He became president in 2018 following Jacob Zuma’s resignation amidst corruption allegations.

Despite efforts to restore the ANC’s reputation by tackling government graft, Ramaphosa’s tenure has been marked by rising unemployment—now at 32%, the highest globally—and persistent poverty. An ongoing electricity crisis, resulting from failures at the state-run electricity provider, has caused widespread power outages, severely damaging the economy and tarnishing Ramaphosa’s image as a problem-solver.

Although the ANC is expected to win the largest share of votes, failing to secure a majority would necessitate coalition partners to reelect the 71-year-old Ramaphosa.

Main Opposition Leader

John Steenhuisen, leader of the Democratic Alliance (DA), the main opposition party, has pledged to “rescue” South Africa from the ANC’s alleged corruption and mismanagement. Despite never coming close to winning a national election, the DA won 22% of the vote in the 2019 general election compared to the ANC’s 62%.

FILE - Main opposition Democratic Alliance (DA) party leader John Steenhuisen waves to supporters in Pretoria, South Africa, on Feb. 17, 2024, at the party's manifesto launch ahead of the 2024 general elections. Steenhuisen has promised to "rescue" South Africa from what it says is the corruption and mismanagement of the governing Africa National Congress but has never come close to winning a national election. (AP Photo/Jerome Delay, File)
Main opposition Democratic Alliance (DA) party leader John Steenhuisen waves to supporters in Pretoria, South Africa, on Feb. 17, 2024, at the party’s manifesto launch ahead of the 2024 general elections. (AP Photo/Jerome Delay, File)

The DA has formed a pre-election alliance with smaller opposition parties, hoping their combined vote might oust the ANC. However, significant gains would be required, making this outcome unlikely.

Steenhuisen, 48, is the only white leader among South Africa’s main political parties. His leadership has sparked criticism that the DA primarily represents white minority interests, in a nation where racial issues remain prominent.

A Firebrand Marxist

The Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF), South Africa’s third-largest party, was founded in 2013 by Julius Malema, a former ANC youth leader. Malema’s far-left rhetoric and criticism of the ANC’s failures resonate with many poor, Black South Africans, especially the unemployed youth.

FILE - Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) leader Julius Malema at the party's manifesto launch in Durban, South Africa, on Feb. 10, 2024. The EFF has risen rapidly to become South Africa's third biggest party in Parliament since it was formed in 2013 by Malema, a former African National Congress youth leader who was expelled from the ruling party. (AP Photo/Tsvangirayi Mukwazhi, File)
Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) leader Julius Malema at the party’s manifesto launch in Durban, South Africa, on Feb. 10, 2024. (AP Photo/Tsvangirayi Mukwazhi, File)

The EFF advocates for nationalizing mines and redistributing land to impoverished Blacks, maintaining that economic inequality remains starkly racial. Known for its militant approach, the EFF has disrupted parliamentary sessions and engaged in physical confrontations with security personnel. A potential coalition with the ANC remains uncertain, with neither party confirming such plans.

Zuma Returns

Former President Jacob Zuma has re-entered the political scene, announcing in December his departure from the ANC to form a new party. While Zuma’s MK Party is not expected to challenge the top three parties, it could further erode the ANC’s vote base.

FILE - Former South African president, Jacob Zuma, sings and dances after addressing his supporters of the UMkhonto WeSizwe, (MK) party outside the High court in Johannesburg, South Africa, on April 11, 2024. Zuma added a new dimension when he announced in December that he was turning his back on the ruling Africa National Congress he once led and is returning to politics with a new party. (AP Photo/Themba Hadebe, File)
Former South African president, Jacob Zuma, sings and dances after addressing his supporters of the UMkhonto WeSizwe, (MK) party outside the High court in Johannesburg, South Africa, on April 11, 2024. (AP Photo/Themba Hadebe, File)

Zuma, who commands significant support in his home province of KwaZulu-Natal, has added a new layer of complexity to the election. His return raises security concerns, given that his 2021 prison sentence for contempt of court led to deadly riots.

Zuma is currently embroiled in a legal battle over his eligibility to run for Parliament, with potential unrest looming if he is disqualified. His renewed role as an agitator is likely to heighten tensions in this pivotal election.

As South Africa prepares for this significant electoral test, the political landscape is fraught with uncertainty and potential upheaval, marking the most crucial change since the end of apartheid. – AP