Siyabonga Matlala is unequivocal about who he’ll support in South Africa’s May 8 election: the same party he’s backed since apartheid ended a quarter century ago.
“I will always vote African National Congress,” the 49-year-old farm labourer said in an interview in Fisantekraal, a shantytown on Cape Town’s outskirts. “There is no reason to change now.”
The unwavering loyalty of voters like Matlala has underpinned the ANC’s grip on power. That’s helped it weather a succession of scandals under its former leader, Jacob Zuma, and mounting public anger over rampant unemployment and sub-standard government services. Opinion polls show the party is on course to secure a sixth five-year mandate, although with a marginally smaller share of the vote than the 62% it won in 2014.
Analysts at banks ranging from Goldman Sachs to Standard Bank say an ANC win of around 60% will give Ramaphosa the support needed to introduce reforms to ignite investment and economic growth, spurring a rally in the rand, stocks and bonds. Losing its majority or even a narrow victory may spark capital outflows.
There are manifold reasons why Africa’s oldest political movement remains so popular.
The ANC is still revered by many South Africans for the leading role it played in bringing an end to white-minority rule. Millions of state welfare recipients credit the party for ensuring they get their monthly stipends Its campaign budget eclipses that of all opponents combined, as evidenced by the tens of thousands of its posters that adorn walls and lampposts in towns and villages countrywide.
“We sit in a country where the ANC still represents hope for many South Africans,” said Sethulego Matebesi, a political analyst at the University of the Free State in the central town of Bloemfontein.
“If it was based on policies, then we would have a different situation. I don’t think your typical South African voter will even compare the manifestos of the political parties. It’s all about emotions.”
What South Africa’s main political parties are promising voters
The ANC’s final campaign push illustrated its dominance. On Saturday it staged rallies in six towns, and on Sunday it’s expected to pack out Johannesburg’s 62 567-seat Ellis Park stadium and screen the event to tens of thousands of other supporters at a nearby venue.
The Economic Freedom Fighters, the third-largest party, was seeking to lure thousands of people to the Orlando stadium in Soweto, southwest of Johannesburg, on Sunday. The main opposition Democratic Alliance filled the nearby 24 000-seat Dobsonville stadium for its final campaign event on Saturday.
The ANC’s roots date back to 1912, when a group of prominent black businessmen, clerics, tribal chiefs, journalists and lawyers founded the South African Native National Congress in a kindergarten classroom adjacent to the Waaihoek Wesleyan church in Bloemfontein. The movement changed its name to the ANC in 1923 and waged an 82-year struggle for political rights for black citizens before sweeping to power under Nelson Mandela in the first multiracial elections in 1994.
“We made mistakes and veered off course”
The ANC can point to progress since then – millions of people have gained access to electricity, potable water and housing, and almost a third of the population of 57.7 million receive welfare grants. But 27% of the workforce is unemployed, inequality levels are among the world’s highest, and appalling standards at public schools and hospitals have sparked sometimes-violent protests.
The ANC’s reputation took a hammering during Zuma’s nine-year presidency. Testimony at judicial inquiries suggest billions of rands were looted from state companies and government coffers with his tacit consent, and several top-ranking ANC officials have been implicated in taking bribes.
Nedbank, South Africa’s fourth-largest lender, estimates that corruption, maladministration and bad policies shaved R470bn off the nation’s gross domestic product during Zuma’s final four years in office. Although he denied wrongdoing, the ANC forced Zuma to step down in February last year to stem a loss of support.
QuicktakeSouth Africa’s election
The ruling party admits it could have done more to better the lives of the poor and tackle graft and has sought to convince the electorate that it has put itself back on track since Cyril Ramaphosa took the helm of the party in December 2017.
“The ANC acknowledges that we made mistakes and veered off course,” the party said in its election manifesto. “We have shown the capacity to self-correct.”
The ANC’s attempts at renewal have been undermined by the inclusion of several people who’ve faced accusations of criminal or unethical behavior on its list of candidate lawmakers, according to Robert Schrire, a politics professor at the University of Cape Town.
“In South Africa, the empty slogan ‘Innocent until proved guilty’ enables the criminals to retain their positions almost indefinitely,” he said.
Computer systems analyst Tsoanelo Modise, 37, sees the election as an opportunity for the ANC to clean up its act and appoint officials with the skills to run the government.
“This is the time for them to show that they can be more than merely liberators and they can lead a country properly,” he said. “In my view, it is their last chance.”
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