Divided South Africans vote in tight elections that could end ANC dominance

By Melissa Chemam - RFI

South Africans go to the polls Wednesday for parliamentary, provincial and local elections. After 30 years in power, Nelson Mandela's African National Congress (ANC) party could be forced into a coalition.

The latest survey, released last week by Afrobarometer, shows that a third of voters are still undecided – making the elections the most unpredictable in South Africa's democratic history.

The ANC has never appeared so fragile since the end of white minority rule in 1994 when Mandela was elected.

Polls suggest the ANC's share of the vote could fall as low as 40 percent, compared with 57.5 percent in 2019.

End of an era

Rallies on all sides gathered thousands of supporters last weekend.

Many voters are fed up with unemployment, crime, corruption and what many see as pervasive racism. Then there are the daily power cuts.

If the ANC is forced into its first coalition, President Cyril Ramaphosa may face a leadership challenge.

"I do think we're going to move towards a model of coalition government," professor Gareth Stevens, vice-chancellor at the University of Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, told RFI.

"South Africa was really a kind of incubator, a social laboratory for testing the ways that we think about democracy, governance and transitional societies undergoing change from authoritarian pasts to much more democratic presidents."

This explains why the support for a party that has been in power for three decades is now crumbling.

South Africa could experience its second watershed moment as the black majority decides it needs change more than it needs to be thankful for liberation from apartheid.

The country is facing its “biggest crisis since 1994”, says William Gumede, a former deputy editor of The Sowetan newspaper who's now with the School of Governance.

The political crisis is coupled with an economic crisis and the world's highest unemployment, at 32 percent.

Which coalition?

If the ANC gets less than half the vote, it will have to rule in a coalition with another party.

Ramaphosa's introduction this month of popular measures such as a national health insurance law and the proposed basic income grant could rescue the party from the worst-case scenarios, says Nicole Beardsworth, a politics researcher at the University of the Witwatersrand.

"I don't think we're going to see the ANC get over 50 percent," Beardsworth said. "They're going to have to negotiate a coalition. The big question is with whom?"

The party coming next in polls is the centre right Democratic Alliance (DA), which has for decades represented mostly the white and the rich – especially in the province of the Western Cape.

It is hard to imagine a working coalition between the DA and the ANC.

Yet the DA has managed to attract some black and coloured voters in Eastern Cape, Gauteng and KwaZulu Natal, with many black campaigners fronting their meetings.

In August 2023, the DA and six other opposition parties formed a coalition called the Multi-Party Charter for South Africa to try to unseat the ANC.

On the left of the political spectrum, ANC veterans Julius Malema and Jacob Zuma could be the biggest threats, the former leading the Economic Freedom Fighters to the polls, and the latter supporting the newly formed MK party.

The results are expected on Friday evening. The newly elected majority would then have two weeks to form a government.