South Africa elections: voting under way amid grim national mood

Estimated read time 6 min read

South Africans are voting in what are expected to be the most competitive elections since the end of apartheid, which could result in the ruling African National Congress (ANC) party losing its majority for the first time since Nelson Mandela led it to power 30 years ago.

The national mood is grim owing to some of the world’s highest rates of unemployment and inequality, power cuts, water shortages and violent crime. Younger generations do not feel the same gratitude and loyalty to the ANC as many of their parents and grandparents do, for leading the successful fight for multi-racial democracy.

Polls have consistently shown the ANC getting less than 50% of the national vote, down from 57.5% in the last elections in 2019. This raises the prospect of South Africa’s first coalition government since the “government of national unity” during Mandela’s single presidential term, when the country was seen as a beacon of hope for Africa and the world.

“I certainly think the ANC is not going to make 50% … The best case seems to be 46-47%,” said David Everatt, a professor at the University of Witwatersrand who conducted polls for the party from 1993 until South Africa’s most recent regional elections in 2021.

“The mood is very, very low and many people attribute their unhappiness directly to the ANC.”

Millions more South Africans now have access to quality housing with electricity and running water than in 1994 when the ANC came to power. But rising unemployment, along with corruption scandals and rolling power cuts that have lasted up to 10 hours a day in recent years, have contributed to a sense for many that the government no longer works for them. Even Mandela’s home village of Qunu in the rural Eastern Cape no longer has piped water.

More than 80% of South Africans said the country was going in the wrong direction in a 2022 poll by pan-African survey organisation Afrobarometer. Four in 10 adults are out of work.

Joy Reabetswe, who sells funeral insurance, accused ANC politicians of hoarding state resources for themselves

Reabetswe, 18, who is saving money to pay for a law degree, said voting had not crossed her mind. President Cyril Ramaphosa “could do better,” she said, speaking outside a supermarket on the outskirts of Diepsloot, a poor township bordering verdant golf courses on Johannesburg’s northern fringes.

The Democratic Alliance (DA), the largest opposition party and more pro-business than the ANC, can help South Africans, she said, but was not appealing either due to the oft-levelled accusation that it favours the interests of white people (which it denies).

John Steenhuisen in front of a large backdrop with the words ‘we can rescue SA rally’View image in fullscreen

The DA is led by John Steenhuisen, who is white and took over the party leadership in 2019 when his black predecessor, Mmusi Maimane, resigned, claiming that his efforts to win over more black voters had been stymied. It was formed after a merger agreement between the Democratic party, whose roots were in opposing apartheid in the former white-only parliament, and the New National party, the renamed National party that had ruled South Africa during apartheid. The DA’s relationship with the NNP broke down after a year, and the NNP formed an alliance with the ANC instead.

“How do we trust them?” Reabetswe asked of the DA. “How do we know they won’t take us back to apartheid?”

The economically liberal DA got 20.8% of the vote in the 2019 elections and few analysts think it will achieve far above that this year. Nor is there any confidence that the Multi-Party Charter, a loose alliance that the DA formed with 10 other much smaller parties, only four of which now have any elected representatives, will get a majority.

Among the other opposition parties that could score double digits in Wednesday’s vote are the Marxist-inspired Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF), led by former ANC youth leader Julius Malema, which got almost 11% of the vote in 2019.

“I’ll definitely vote EFF,” said Petronella, a 19-year-old colleague of Reabetswe. “They stand for people and they keep their word.”

She had seen the EFF and the ANC campaigning around her home in Hillbrow, a central Johannesburg district with a reputation for having been hollowed out by gang crime. “I am not a fan,” she said, of the ANC. “I have not seen their work.”

Children sit in front of an ANC campaign poster View image in fullscreen

Meanwhile, a new party, uMkhonto we Sizwe (MK), named after the ANC’s armed wing during apartheid, has further complicated the political landscape for the elections, which also include provincial ballots. This is especially the case in KwaZulu-Natal (KZN), the second-most populous province and stronghold of MK leader, former president Jacob Zuma, who was last week barred by South Africa’s top court from running for parliament himself.

Zuma, 82, was president from 2009 to 2018, but was forced to resign amid corruption allegations that he denies. He has since continued to feud with his successor, Ramaphosa, something that could benefit his new MK party.

“KZN is definitely the battlefield,” said Mbali Ntuli, a former DA politician in the province who now runs the non-partisan Ground Work Collective, which ran voter registration drives among young people and will field about 2,500 election observers.

“There are a lot of people who are doing a grudge vote against the ANC by voting for the MK. You hear them quite openly … saying they want to vote against Ramaphosa’s ANC.”

However, the possibility of the ANC scraping a slim majority can’t be counted out – thanks in part to its formidable electoral machine, liberation history and the power of incumbency, according to some experts.

“The ANC has what we call ‘struggle credentials’,” said Kealeboga Maphunye, a professor of African politics at the University of South Africa.

Many polls in South Africa typically underestimate the ANC vote, due to surveying fewer of the harder-to-reach rural voters that make up a large segment of its support base, Maphunye said. There is also still a high degree of uncertainty around voting intentions, he added.

A third of registered, likely voters had not decided who they were going to vote for or refused to say, according to a phone poll conducted from 27 April to 11 May by Afrobarometer (it noted, though, this survey method excluded poorer voters that do not have mobile phones).

“The advantages of incumbency are also very important,” said Maphunye. The ANC has “got all these state resources at their disposal and they are able to influence certain sections of society, especially vacillating or undecided voters, especially at the very last minute”.


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