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South African Elections: Thirty Years After Apartheid the Country is in ‘Crisis’ with ANC Blamed by Many

South Africa heads to the polls on 29 May amid predictions that the African National Congress could lose its majority for the first time

South African President Cyril Ramaphosa pictured in November 2018. Photo: Eva-Lotta Jansson / Alamy
South African President Cyril Ramaphosa pictured in November 2018. Photo: Eva-Lotta Jansson / Alamy

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South Africans will vote on Wednesday – three decades after the end of apartheid in April 1994 and amid suggestions the the country is in its “biggest crisis”. The African National Congress (ANC) has been in power since then, but polls are predicting the party could lose its majority for the first time, with many voters soured by its failure to address stark inequality.

The ANC is the party of the late Nelson Mandela, and led the anti-apartheid movement, and many black voters feel attached to this legacy. But, the country is now much worse off, with unemployment over 30%, and the gap between rich and poor higher than ever. 

“South Africa is not the country of Mandela’s dream,” Razia Saleh, head of Archive and Research at Nelson Mandela Foundation, in Johannesburg, told Byline Times.

The late Nelson Mandela speaking at the Labour Party Conference in Brighton September 2000. Photo: Simon Dack Archive / Alamy

South Africa could live its second watershed moment, if the party are defeated, according to experts who say the country could be facing “its deepest change since 1994 this year”.

“We are living our biggest crisis since 1994, possibly in our modern history, multiple crises,” William Gumede, an associate professor with the School of Governance at the University of the Witwatersrand, executive chairperson of Democracy Works Foundation, and former deputy editor of The Sowetan newspaper explained.

“A political crisis, an economic crisis, with the world’s highest unemployment, at 32%, and we’ve got unemployment of young people at 60%, even higher unemployment than conflict countries like Sudan.”  Overall, unemployment, is nearly 10 points higher than 30 years ago.

Gumede believes that if the country continues on its current trajectory, and the ANC remains in charge, it’s likely “five years of very deep pain” lies ahead.

“We are possibly looking around over 50% for unemployment. So this election is so critical,” he explained.


A Multiparty Democracy with an Opposition in Mutation

If the ANC is threatened by the rise of defectors, it isn’t clear who and which parties could benefit from the profound desire for change. 

The main opposition party, the Democratic Alliance (DA), is rallying among a larger demographic group than ever before, though it remains the party in charge of the province of the Western Cape, and the liberal party that has so far represented the white, and richest, South Africans.

In August 2023, seven opposition parties formed a coalition, called a Multi-Party Charter for South Africa (MPC), to try to unseat ANC.

The parties include the DA, and smaller parties: Inkatha Freedom Party (IFP), Freedom Front Plus (FF Plus), Action SA, Independent South African National Civic Organisation (ISANCO), United Independent Movement (UIM) and Spectrum National Party (SNP).

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“The ANC sadly, is very, very complacent,” Gumede says. “So with this election, we’ll have to break something, which is very fundamental, in order to secure the change.”

Gumede, who now supports the MPC, explained that many ANC voters support the party based on “their emotions, on ethnicity, on solidarity, on the past, not based on the present, let alone the future.

“It’s almost a trauma voting, and definitely an identity voting. They vote despite whatever the leaders of their party perform because they think they have to vote for it until they die. Yet, this year, we’ve got the last window of opportunity to try to change course.”

Former president Jacob Zuma, who remains a strong voice among the Zulu population in the province of KwaZulu Natal (KZN), tried to make a comeback by leaving the ANC and joining the newly formed MK party, but was barred from running on 20 May by the Constitutional Court. 

Experts still believe that Zuma’s position against the ANC may make the elections tougher for President Cyril Ramaphosa, as could the campaign from another former ANC member, Julius Malema, who is now heading the party of Economic Freedom Fighters, or EFF, considered as hard left, or even as Marxists by some.

A potential alliance between ANC and these hard left parties with no experience of governance is what motivates the DA the most.


Poverty, corruption, inequality 

A huge part of the South African population depends on grants, including some that were put into place during Covid, but they’re increasingly difficult to get because of red tape and what the public denounce as lies from the government body in charge. 

More than 24 million – over a third of the population – require this assistance, and more than 60% of the population lives in poverty, according to the World Bank, after a decade of economic stagnation. 

“Grants and subsidies do much more than give people what they need to live, they are an investment in the future,” Ramaphosa promised in February.

Yet, according to the South African Institute of Race Relations, the ANC’s policies have only “enriched an elite few while keeping millions in poverty. It disincentives employment, growth and investment.” 

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Many in townships don’t believe the ANC knows how to keep its promises: it can’t create jobs, they claim, or finance redistribution. And, many agree, that 30 years in power has led to a generalised out-of-control level of corruption. 

Corruption is the biggest concern of youth, a report from the Ichikowitz Family Foundation shows, rising from 64% “very concerned” in 2022 to 85% in 2024.

In his book The Enemy Within: How the ANC lost the battle against corruption, the journalist and political commentator Mpumelelo Mkhabela argues that the ANC is “consumed by corrupt cadres within the party”.

The parliament speaker, Nosiviwe Mapisa-Nqakula, had to quit in April after she was charged with corruption and money laundering.

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“In any post-conflict society, the support for the revolutionary party starts to wane after a few decades,” explains Gareth Stevens, vice-chancellor of the University of Witwatersrand. 

“It happens not only in South Africa, and not only for the ANC. I do think we’re going to move towards a model of coalition government. A new system with tiers of governance between local, provincial and national powers. It’s a challenge but also a potential for positive change.”

Gumdee said this election is going to determine whether black South Africans, for the first time, “break their bond with the ANC, and vote against it”. “If we don’t break the cycle in South Africa, we will go into a failed state. So, that’s why this election is so absolutely critical.”

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He believes South Africa has a powerful democracy, with one of the most active civil societies in the world, but a democracy that is not fully mature. 

“The only way to mature a democracy is to see if the governing party accepts being voted out,” Gumede explains. “If the same party remains in power forever, we don’t have a fully mature democracy.” 

So this election, is not only about securing the best future for South Africans, but also for its democracy to move forward.


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