Wednesday’s elections will be widely seen as a referendum on President Jacob Zuma, with the stalling economy casting a shadow on the progress made by the ruling party and the country since the end of apartheid.
The ANC, which controls the majority of the 259 municipalities, has been weakened by graft scandals and public discontent since leading the fight that ended white minority rule in 1994. Government’s struggle to provide basic services, such as electricity, to the poor could fuel support for the main opposition, the DA, and the leftist Economic Freedom Fighters.
The ruling party has easily won all post-apartheid elections, but its rivals hope this week’s vote could shake its previously impregnable hold on power. Analysis of the results will focus on the battle for three key metropolitan municipalities – Johannesburg, Pretoria and Port Elizabeth. Polls suggest the DA, which already holds Cape Town, could win all three cities, providing it with a major boost ahead of the 2019 general election.
“We are dealing with a situation of an angry electorate,” says Prince Mashele of the Pretoria-based Centre for Politics and Research.
“For many people, the hope that came with the ANC has turned into disgruntlement.”
Violence has also marred the elections, with a spate of politically linked killings in KwaZulu-Natal, an ANC stronghold. At least 13 people have been killed in attacks often blamed on internal ANC friction.
A record 26.3 million people are registered to vote, but low turnout may be a factor in the results. A poor showing by the ANC in this election would pile pressure on Zuma, who could step down before his term ends when the national elections are held in three years’ time.
The party’s promise of more jobs has been unfulfilled, thanks to the frail economy. Growth this year is predicted to flatline at 0%, leaving the unemployment rate at about 26%, with frustrated young jobseekers badly affected.
“There is an element of unpredictability that may inject an element of accountability in the entire political system,” Mashele says. According to a political analyst at the University of the Witwatersrand, Susan Booysen, the ANC may be in decline, but still stands a chance of winning overall. She urges caution over predicting the results.
“The ANC realises the difficult position it’s in and has pulled all the stops to ensure it retains the key metros,” Booysen says. She adds that recent violent protests were not a sign of rejection of the current government.
“The protests are a way of communicating,” she says.