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ANC’s dwindling popularity in South Africa gives cause for thought

Cape Town Letter: After 30 years in power, the party of president Cyril Ramaphosa is in danger of losing this year’s general election - a prospect that raises questions for the party and the region

With this year’s general election in South Africa fast approaching, President Cyril Ramaphosa has begun the arduous task of convincing voters to return his African National Congress party to government after 30 years in power.

In what looked like the unofficial launch of the ANC’s re-election campaign in Cape Town last week, Ramaphosa delivered a televised state-of-the-nation address loaded with the ruling party’s historical achievements in addition to its vision for the future.

He talked of his party’s role in ending apartheid, its development of the country’s much-lauded constitution, and their efforts to create a new society since 1994, as much as he did the ANC’s recent achievements and the year ahead.

“Over the last three decades, we have been on a journey, striving together to achieve a new society – a national democratic society. We have cast off the tyranny of apartheid and built a democratic state based on the will of the people,” Ramaphosa reflected.

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Unsurprisingly, opposition parties were unimpressed by his speech, saying it was nothing more than a smokescreen intended to cover up for his government’s abject failure to deliver on its 2019 election promises.

Back then Ramaphosa vowed to tackle ANC corruption and revive the country’s moribund economy, claiming South Africans would witness a “new dawn” under his stewardship.

Although some progress has been made on these issues over the past five years, the reality for many South Africans is the much-touted brighter future has failed to materialise in any tangible way. The emergence of Covid-19 and a failing state-run power utility, which has hamstrung his administration’s efforts to attract the international investment needed to kick-start the economy, are partly to blame for this situation.

Nevertheless, under his watch South Africa’s rates of unemployment (which was 31.9 per cent in quarter three of 2023) and murder (which was recorded at 27,494 for the period April 2022 to March 2023) have become among the highest in the world and have only worsened in recent years.

As a result, the 2024 general election, which must take place by August, holds out the real possibility of the ANC dropping below 50 per cent of the vote threshold it needs to win the ballot outright, according to recent opinion polls. Were this to occur, it would be the first time the ANC has not won a majority in a national election since apartheid ended in 1994.

The latest poll released by research company Ipsos last Tuesday, which is similar to other recent surveys, shows the ANC is falling well short of the support required to rule alone – meaning at best it would have to form a coalition with smaller parties to stay in power.

In Ipsos’s initial results from a poll of 3,600 would-be voters who were asked if they would back the ANC in this year’s general election, only 38.5 per cent said they would. A further 10 per cent indicated they were undecided.

With the ANC’s political opponents sensing weakness, three of the largest parties* – the Democratic Alliance, Freedom Front Plus and the Inkatha Freedom Party, which collectively won 27 per cent of the vote in 2019 – have joined four others to form a grand coalition to remove it from government.

While it is too early to gauge what might transpire, the question inevitably arises whether the ANC would be willing to accept an electoral defeat, given liberation movements’ history in Africa. Across much of sub-Saharan Africa the resistance movements that secured independence from colonial rule in the 1950s and 60s have lost power in their respective nations either through coup d’etats or losses at elections.

But a notable exception is the southern Africa region, where freedom was only achieved much later. The People’s Movement for the Liberation of Angola, the Zimbabwe African National Union – Patriotic Front, the Mozambique Liberation Front, and the ANC, to name a few, are all still in power in the countries they helped to liberate in the 1970s, 80s and 90s.

Of these four, all but the ANC have repeatedly been accused of rigging elections to retain control of power by international and local monitors as well as opposition groups.

There are no signs or suggestions the ANC would do the same, or that it would not accept defeat at the ballot box if it occurred. However, as its revolutionary contemporaries across the region were forced to do before it, the ANC is facing a scenario involving a massive loss of support that was never a real threat to its grip on absolute power before.

One can only hope the ANC bucks the regional trend if it does find itself on the wrong side of this year’s election result.

* This article was amended on February 13th to correct an inaccuracy. The Economic Freedom Fighters is the second largest opposition party in South Africa.

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