ANC seeks to reverse sliding support in tough election

The African National Congress faces its toughest electoral test on Wednesday, seeking to reverse a slide in support from voters frustrated by rampant graft and racial inequalities a generation after it won power in South Africa’s first all-race poll.

Voting in parliamentary and provincial elections begins at 7 a.m. local time (0500 GMT) and polling stations will close at 9 p.m.. The exact timing of results is uncertain.

The national election is the first under President Cyril Ramaphosa, who replaced scandal-plagued Jacob Zuma as head of state in February 2018 after four years as Zuma’s deputy.

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Ramaphosa, who took over from Zuma as ANC leader in December 2017, is trying to restore faith in the governing party once led by Nelson Mandela after its image was tarnished during Zuma’s decade-long leadership.

The ANC, which has governed South Africa since the end of white minority rule in 1994, won 62% of the vote in 2014’s parliamentary election — down from 2009 and far short of its best result, 69% in 2004 under President Thabo Mbeki.

South African parliamentary and provincial elections take place every five years, with seats allocated according to a proportional representation system.

Support for the ANC has dwindled further in recent years, analysts say, especially in major cities, including the financial and political capitals of Johannesburg and Pretoria.

That is largely due to corruption allegations against government officials, a slowing economy with one of the highest unemployment rates in the world, around 27%, and demands from black citizens for more equitable distribution of land.

Ramaphosa has promised to accelerate land redistribution, improve service delivery, create jobs and fight corruption.

Opinion polls predict the ANC will again win a majority of the 400 seats in the National Assembly, but analysts predict its margin of victory will fall.

“The belief is that a poor showing for the ANC would embolden Ramaphosa’s opponents and risk a potential leadership challenge,” Razia Khan, chief Africa economist at Standard Chartered, said in a research report.

One step forward

Ramaphosa, who became ANC leader after narrowly defeating a faction allied with Zuma, does not hold full sway within his own party, which has also slowed down his efforts to bring in reforms to kick-start the economy. The ANC adopts an inclusive approach to decision-making on key issues.

“While we expect the ANC to do ‘OK’, given the lack of growth, disastrous levels of inequality and unemployment, we still see the internal fight back against President Ramaphosa to continue regardless after the election,” Peter Attard Montalto, head of capital markets research at Intellidex, said in a note.

“Reforms will remain at best one-step-forward-one-step-back and so potential growth will not rise.”

The economy, Africa’s most industrialised, grew an estimated 0.8% in 2018 after recovering from a recession in the first half of the year when a drought hit farming, although blackouts at power utility Eskom continue to drag on activity. Growth is forecast at 1.5% this year.

A record 48 parties are running in the parliamentary poll, with many more contesting the elections for nine provincial legislatures.

The ANC’s biggest challengers are main opposition party the Democratic Alliance (DA) and the leftist Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF).

The centre-right DA won 22% of the parliamentary vote in 2014. It appointed its first black leader Mmusi Maimane in 2015 and made headlines by leading coalition victories in local government elections in Pretoria and Johannesburg a year later.

But splits within the party and with allies could see support for the DA wane.

The EFF, led by Julius Malema, a fiery orator who formed the party in 2013 after he was expelled from the ANC, won 6% of the vote in 2014, making it the third-largest presence in parliament. It wants to nationalise mines and banks, and played a key role in holding Zuma to account for spending state money on non-security upgrades to his private residence.