Nelson Mandela’s party has ruled South Africa for three decades – it now faces a critical moment of truth

By Sarah Dean and David McKenzie, CNN

Johannesburg, South Africa CNN  —  South Africans go to the polls on May 29 for what will likely be the most pivotal general election since the end of apartheid.

Polls show the ruling African National Congress (ANC) party could lose its majority for the first time since Nelson Mandela led the party to power in 1994. While polling can be challenging in South Africa, most analysts believe that the ANC faces its stiffest challenge yet with a population deeply frustrated by the country’s direction.

This is the seventh general election South Africa has held since the end of white minority rule 30 years ago. A record 27.79 million people are registered to vote – the highest number to date, according to the Independent Electoral Commission (IEC.) The slide in popularity mirrors the challenges of liberation movements that have transitioned into governing parties across the continent.

What could happen?

If support for the ANC drops below 50 percent for the first time, the party will be forced to enter into a coalition government. A loss of a simple majority would put significant pressure on President Cyril Ramaphosa within his party, as he promised a “new dawn” when he took over leadership in 2018 from disgraced former president Jacob Zuma.

Support for the ANC has been on a slow downward trend over the decades but at the last election in 2019 it dropped below 60 percent for the first time, with the party earning 57.50 percent of the vote.

What’s gone wrong for the ANC?

South Africans have a lot to grumble about. Violent crime is on the rise. Murder is at a 20-year high; with someone killed in the country roughly every 20 minutes, according to the most recent quarterly police crime statistics. Many have lost faith in the police as part of a larger breakdown in trust in government.

South Africa general election 101

• South Africa uses a “proportional representation” system.
• Citizens cast a vote for a single party (not a presidential candidate).
• Voters will have 31 political parties to choose from in the national elections.
The process is facilitated by the Independent Electoral Commission (IEC).

The Rainbow Nation has the highest sustained rate of unemployment in the world – and it’s growing.
Meanwhile, rolling electricity blackouts, water outages, a crisis in education, and a lack of service delivery all weigh on the population.

But high on the list of issues are the allegations of corruption and mismanagement that continue to damage the ANC.

When Ramaphosa – Mandela’s favorite to succeed him as leader – replaced scandal-plagued Jacob Zuma as president, he pledged “to work very hard not to disappoint the people of South Africa.” But in 2022, Ramaphosa was himself forced to deny stealing money.

“Corruption has wounded our democracy and shaken people’s faith in our institutions,” he admitted in a November speech. “If corruption is not arrested, the greatest damage will not be in the funds stolen, the jobs lost, or the services not delivered. The greatest damage will be to the belief in democracy itself,” he added.

This year South Africa received its lowest score on Transparency International’s Corruption Perception Index. The index scores countries from 0 (highly corrupt) to 100 (very clean). South Africa received 41 – worse than China and Cuba at 42.

What are the other key parties?

The country’s main opposition party, the centrist Democratic Alliance (DA), is led by John Steenhuisen and is seen by many as a party for White South Africans.

For this election, the DA has formed a coalition bloc with smaller opposition parties called the Multi-Party Charter.

Democratic Alliance (DA) party leader Johan Steenhuisen speaks to supporters during a party event on May 9, 2024, in Soweto, South Africa.

If the polls are to be believed, the ANC may have to make the choice between forming a coalition with the Zuma-backed party – uMkhonto weSizwe Party (MK) – and the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) or the DA.

Steenhuisen, for his part, has not ruled out going into coalition with the ANC if it were to keep the EFF and MK out of government.

The EFF is a populist far-left party led by former ANC youth leader Julius Malema. It began as a splinter party of the ANC and espouses expropriation of land without compensation and sweeping state nationalism.

The EFF has shown support for the MK party and Malema recently said that he intends to “give the EFF vote to the ANC” if it doesn’t get 50 percent – on the condition that his deputy, Floyd Shivambu, becomes Minister of Finance. Steenhuisen has described an ANC-EFF-MK pact as a “doomsday coalition.”

Talking of Zuma…

The former president continues to be a thorn in Ramaphosa’s side.

After a brief stint in jail in 2021 for contempt of court after failing to appear before a corruption inquiry, the 82-year-old is now the leader of the MK party – and was up until this week top of their parliamentary list.

The country’s Constitutional Court ruled Monday he is not eligible to run for parliament until five years have elapsed since the completion of his sentence. The unanimous ruling capped monthslong speculation and legal wrangling on whether he could stand for the country’s top legislative body.

His party will still contest the election and his face will remain on the ballot.

Zuma had been campaigning against what he perceives as Ramaphosa’s failures and disillusioned ANC voters were lapping it up, according to polls. An April poll by the Johannesburg-based Social Research Foundation poll found the ANC may get 37 percent of the vote, while MK may garner 13 percent.

However, the most recent polling from the same foundation puts support for the MK party at 10.5 percent and the ANC at 44.8 percent on Monday. This suggests the ANC may be winning back support and may only need a small coalition partner.

When will we know the final result?

The final election results will be announced on Sunday 2 June, the IEC said.

However, projections should give a sense of the result a day or two after polls close and the final result could be announced sooner if vote counting is completed earlier.

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