Meet the leaders at the forefront of SA’s most pivotal election since ’94

As South Africa gears up for a pivotal national election, the stage is set for a dramatic showdown among key players. President Cyril Ramaphosa, a symbol of the post-apartheid era, faces challenges in maintaining the ANC’s grip amidst economic woes. John Steenhuisen of the Democratic Alliance and Julius Malema of the Economic Freedom Fighters offer contrasting visions, while Velenkosini Hlabisa’s IFP and Jacob Zuma’s uMkhonto weSizwe Party add intriguing twists to the political landscape. With promises of change, stability, and controversy, this election promises to shape the nation’s future profoundly.

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By Mike Cohen

For the first time since White-minority rule ended three decades ago, South Africa is heading into national elections in which an outright winner isn’t apparent. A series of opinion polls show the ruling African National Congress risks losing its majority in the May 29 vote and may have to enlist the support of one or more rivals to continue governing Africa’s most industrialized economy. 

These are some of the key players in the contest:  

The Incumbent: President Cyril Ramaphosa, 71

Party: African National Congress

Share of the vote won in the last national election in 2019: 57.5%

The lowdown: Ramaphosa studied law, founded the nation’s main mineworkers labor union, helped negotiate a peaceful end to apartheid and the country’s first democratic constitution, and accumulated a fortune after founding his own investment company. He returned to full-time politics in 2012, when he was elected as the ANC’s deputy leader, and served as the country’s No. 2 during President Jacob Zuma’s second term. Since taking power in February 2018, he’s struggled to address rampant poverty and unemployment, crippling power cuts and logistics snarl-ups — all of which have eroded support for the ruling party. 

Key promises: 

  • A permanent monthly welfare grant for the vulnerable will be phased in.
  • About 2.5 million “job opportunities” will be created through community programs.
  • A national health insurance plan will be implemented to enable citizens to have access to quality medical care.
  • The financial sector will be transformed to ensure it provides affordable credit and invests in infrastructure, job creation and development.
Cyril Ramaphosa

The Main Challenger: John Steenhuisen, 48

Party: Democratic Alliance

Share of the 2019 vote: 20.8%

The lowdown: Steenhuisen has served as leader of the country’s second-largest party since 2019, prior to which he was its chief whip in parliament. He’s helped cobble together a bloc of 11 opposition parties, known as the Multi-Party Charter, which aims to form a coalition government after the elections. Opinion polls show the alliance will collectively struggle to even obtain 40% support. The business-friendly DA has a predominantly White leadership and has battled to make inroads among a mostly Black electorate. It controls the Western Cape, the only one of the nine provinces not run by the ANC. 

Key promises:

  • Two million new jobs will be created over the next five years.
  • Six million people will be lifted out of poverty.
  • The rate of violent crime will be halved.
  • New fiscal rules will be introduced to stabilize debt.
John Steenhuisen

The Renegade: Julius Malema, 43

Party: Economic Freedom Fighters

Share of the 2019 vote: 10.8% 

The lowdown: A former head of the ANC’s youth wing, Malema has shaken up South African politics since he was expelled from the ruling party in 2012 and went on to find the EFF, now the country’s third-largest party. Its lawmakers wear red miners’ overalls and maids’ uniforms to parliament and have become renowned for disrupting sittings and brawling with security officers. The party has also used the courts to shake up the status quo, securing an order to overturn apartheid-era laws regulating public protests and another which determined that parliament failed to hold Zuma to account for misusing public funds. The EFF’s populist policies have found resonance among many poor, Black township residents whose living standards remain dismal 30 years after the end of apartheid, but it has been less successful in galvanizing support in rural areas.   

Key promises:

  • The corporate tax rate will be increased to 32% from 27%, and a levy on company dividends will be raised to 25% from 20%.
  • All land will be placed under the custodianship of the state and mines will be nationalized.
  • A long-running electricity crisis will be ended within six months by reactivating all of South Africa’s coal-fired power plants and developing new nuclear ones.
  • Nine million new jobs will be created through the formation of a state-owned security company and other programs.
Julius Malema

The Potential Kingmaker: Velenkosini Hlabisa, 59

Party: Inkatha Freedom Party

Share of the 2019 vote: 3.4%

The lowdown: A former schoolteacher, Hlabisa has led the country’s fourth-largest party since 2019. He succeeded Mangosuthu Buthelezi, who founded the party and led it for 44 years. While the IFP is a signatory to the Multi-Party Charter, a number of analysts see it as the most natural coalition partner for the ANC if its support drops substantially below 50%. The two parties have worked together before and the IFP could theoretically agree to support the ANC on a national level in exchange for the premiership of the eastern KwaZulu-Natal province, its main stronghold or cabinet posts — although Hlabisa says he won’t entertain such a barter.  

Key promises:

  • Economic policy will be market-led, with a view to promoting growth and development.
  • Companies will be required to allocate 80% of positions to South Africans, as part of a plan to ensure locals are prioritized over foreign nationals for jobs.
  • Welfare grants for children and pensioners will be increased, and a food voucher system for vulnerable households will be expanded.
  • The energy mix will be diversified to bring an end to power cuts.
Velenkosini Hlabisa

The Wild Card: Jacob Zuma, 82

Party: uMkhonto weSizwe Party

Share of the 2019 vote: Didn’t participate

The lowdown: A former intelligence operative, Zuma led the country for almost nine scandal-marred years before the ANC forced him from office. He was convicted of contempt of court for refusing to testify before a judicial panel that investigated graft during his tenure and handed a 15-month prison sentence but was released on medical parole after serving less than two months. He later benefited from a remission of sentence. In December, Zuma dropped a bombshell when he announced that he wouldn’t vote for the ANC and that he planned to campaign for the newly formed uMkhonto weSizwe Party instead. He remains popular in his home province of KwaZulu-Natal and polls suggest he could draw a sizable chunk of support away from the ANC. 

Key promises:

  • Banks and mines will be nationalized.
  • Land will be expropriated without compensation.
  • Capital gains and inheritance taxes will be increased.
  • Plans to move away from using coal to generate electricity will be scrapped, existing plants that use the fuel will be overhauled and additional nuclear plants will be built.
  • A monthly income grant will be paid to the unemployed.

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