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South Africa's ruling ANC holds final rally to defend solo rule

By Umberto BACCHI - AFP
South Africa Ramaphosa will need to rally support before next week's election if the ANC is not to fall below 50 percent.  By Michele Spatari (AFP)
SAT, 25 MAY 2024 LISTEN
Ramaphosa will need to rally support before next week's election if the ANC is not to fall below 50 percent. By Michele Spatari (AFP)

South Africa's ruling African National Congress staged its last major stadium rally Saturday ahead of next week's general election as it fights to protect its unbeaten streak of post-apartheid victories.

President Cyril Ramaphosa's party summoned the faithful and bussed in the undecided to fill more than two-thirds of the 90,000-seat FNB stadium between Johannesburg and Soweto and give his re-election bid some buzz.

"We will do more and we will do better," the 71-year-old millionaire former businessman told the crowd, branding the ANC "the only political party in the whole of South Africa that can bring so many people together in one place".

"We gather here carrying together the hopes and aspirations of millions," he said. "Our people will decide whether our country continues to move forward with the ANC to a brighter future or turns back to a terrible past."

The final weekend of South Africa's close-fought election campaign was marked by huge stadium rallies organised by the rival parties.  By PHILL MAGAKOE (AFP) The final weekend of South Africa's close-fought election campaign was marked by huge stadium rallies organised by the rival parties. By PHILL MAGAKOE (AFP)

The president won occasional cheers as he pledged not to scrap black economic empowerment programmes and suggested a possible raise in grant money for the poor.

But the crowd was already thinning markedly when musical entertainment gave way to his hour-long speech.

"There was not much people here at the stadium today, the reason being we always hear the same story time and time and again and nothing changes. We are tired," said 35-year-old Lydia, whose mood was less bright than her yellow hat and T-shirt.

Her friend Judy agreed: "Before, the ANC would fill this stadium."

If the polls are to be believed, Wednesday's vote may mark the first time since South Africa became a democracy in 1994 that late leader Nelson Mandela's party fails to win an absolute majority.

'Really struggling'

Clad in yellow and green T-shirts, the ANC supporters put on an enthusiastic show, even if many were sceptical that Ramaphosa could recapture the party's former glory.

Voters, like this Economic Freedom Fighters supporter in Polokwane, are often bussed long distances to back their leaders at rallies.  By Emmanuel CROSET (AFP) Voters, like this Economic Freedom Fighters supporter in Polokwane, are often bussed long distances to back their leaders at rallies. By Emmanuel CROSET (AFP)

"It's important to come out this year because the ANC is really struggling," said Nkululeko Sibeko, 37, from Ramaphosa's hometown Soweto, he and his girlfriend sporting portraits of the president on their shirts.

Up against 51 opposition outfits, Ramaphosa still expects to lead the biggest single bloc in the National Assembly, but if he falls below 50 percent he may struggle to build a coalition of MPs to re-elect him.

The centre-right opposition Democratic Alliance (DA) under John Steenhuisen will hold its last major rally on Sunday, hoping to improve on its 20 percent showing in 2019.

The DA is popular with South Africa's white minority and successful in the Western Cape province but will need the support of a coalition of smaller black-led parties to replace ANC rule.

The ANC's other threat comes from the radical left and red beret-wearing firebrand Julius Malema's Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF), who staged a rival rally on Saturday in the northeastern city of Polokwane.

And the great unknown is former president Jacob Zuma and his newly formed uMkhonto we Sizwe (MK).

After 30 years in power, South Africa's ruling ANC no longer commands automatic loyalty among black voters.  By Michele Spatari (AFP) After 30 years in power, South Africa's ruling ANC no longer commands automatic loyalty among black voters. By Michele Spatari (AFP)

Zuma, who has a conviction for contempt of court, has been barred from standing as an MP and thus from the presidency.

But his party could still take enough votes from his former party, the ANC, to give the charismatic 82-year-old leverage in post-election coalition negotiations.

Growing disenchantment

Sliding under 50 percent would put the ANC and South Africa in uncharted waters, but analysts and opinion polls agree this is the most likely outcome.

South Africa still has the most industrialised economy in sub-Saharan Africa, but growth has not kept pace with the population.  By Michele Spatari (AFP) South Africa still has the most industrialised economy in sub-Saharan Africa, but growth has not kept pace with the population. By Michele Spatari (AFP)

The ANC won freedom for black South Africans after decades of apartheid, helped build democracy and lifted millions out of poverty by creating a broad social welfare system.

The power of ANC in South Africa.  By Guillermo RIVAS PACHECO, Valentina BRESCHI (AFP) The power of ANC in South Africa. By Guillermo RIVAS PACHECO, Valentina BRESCHI (AFP)

But many in the country of 62 million are fed up with high and growing unemployment, currently at 32.9 percent, as well as rampant crime, corruption, power cuts and water shortages.

The economy grew a meagre 0.6 percent in 2023.

About 27 million people are registered to vote on May 29. They will elect the 400 members of the National Assembly, which then chooses the president.

The opposition DA polls below 25 percent.

Led by Steenhuisen, 48, a career politician promoting the privatisation of state-owned companies and the loosening of labour laws, it vowed to "rescue" South Africa and has formed a coalition with about 10 smaller parties.

Malema's EFF and Zuma's MK have been hovering on around 10 percent in polls.

In the northern city of Polokwane, supporters of the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) hailed leftist firebrand Julius Malema.  By Emmanuel CROSET (AFP) In the northern city of Polokwane, supporters of the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) hailed leftist firebrand Julius Malema. By Emmanuel CROSET (AFP)

Thousands of supporters of the EFF, which has banked on the growing disenchantment with the political elite among South Africa's majority poor, thronged the Peter Mokaba stadium in Polokwane on Saturday.

"We are ready to lead the government of South Africa from now onwards," Malema told the gathering, hoarse after an energetic campaign.

"We are ready to fight all criminals in the country, including the corruption of politicians. No politician will be left unattended."

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