🔒 FT: How South Africa’s ruling ANC hopes to cling to power

As the South African general elections approach, the African National Congress (ANC) faces its toughest battle to retain power since 1994. President Cyril Ramaphosa, rallying the party’s loyalists and leveraging its extensive grassroots network, hopes to overcome internal divisions and voter dissatisfaction. Despite a declining urban vote and the rise of splinter groups, the ANC’s legacy and strategic rural support could still secure a narrow majority in this pivotal election.

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By Monica Mark in Mthatha, Eastern Cape

African National Congress relies on loyalists outside cities and campaign knowhow as it battles to cling to power ___STEADY_PAYWALL___

South African leader Cyril Ramaphosa was fuming when he summoned the inner circle of the ruling African National Congress.

With critical general elections just weeks away, the president began with a sharp dressing down. Despite polls suggesting the May 29 vote could deprive the party of the absolute majority it has commanded since 1994, Ramaphosa insisted it could still prevail if only its top brass “put their shoulder to the wheel”.

“We’ve got volunteers around the country and we need to reinvigorate them,” he said in a widely leaked recording of the ANC’s National Executive Committee meeting in April. “We need to fire it up, with boots on the ground.”

Some observers agree with the president’s assessment. With its unparalleled grassroots reach, deep-pocketed donors and decades of organisational knowhow, the ANC is able to lure vast crowds to its raucous campaign rallies.

Its “squeeze strategy”, in which it deploys this formidable election machine in the last weeks of campaigning, could yet hand it a majority in the most closely fought polls since it came to power, said independent political analyst Wayne Sussman.

“The ANC’s backs are against the wall, but there’s definitely a path to 51 or 52 per cent [of the vote],” he said. “That path runs through the rural firewall,” he added, referring to strongholds outside the cities where the party still consistently wins as much as 90 per cent of the vote, despite its national support falling since 2004.

But its overall margins remain razor thin, with most polls suggesting the party will fail to cross the 50 per cent threshold needed for a parliamentary majority.

Voter discontent has been fuelled by deteriorating services including water and electricity, soaring crime and unemployment and a spate of corruption scandals. Economic growth has stalled, with virtually no rise in per capita terms since 2008, while racial inequality remains blatant.

The electoral mathematics is also complicated by competition from two splinter ANC groups: the Economic Freedom Fighters and uMkhonto weSizwe, a breakaway led by former president Jacob Zuma. Some surveys suggest the two together could drain up to a quarter of the ANC’s usual votes.

The ANC also faces internal divisions, including between more radical and market-friendly factions and a pro-Zuma grouping.

“The difference this time is that the ANC is a very disunited party. They’re running a campaign under pressure for the first time,” said William Gumede, executive chair of the Johannesburg-based Democracy Works Foundation.

“This is the most open election in our modern democratic era because there are so many unknowns,” he added. “This will be the first election that’s going to be determined almost at the last day.”

The ANC may have to rely on nostalgia for it as a former liberation party that helped end apartheid, and an intense final push on the ground, if it is to cling to its majority, analysts said. Voter turnout is expected to be key, with lower numbers favouring the incumbent.

Turnout among hardcore loyalists in rural areas will be crucial. These districts cut north though the country’s mining heartland and reach down to the coastal Eastern Cape, the home of revered anti-apartheid figures such as former president Nelson Mandela and Walter Sisulu.

In its first 15 years in power, the ANC more than doubled the size of the Black middle class to 5.4mn households and expanded basic services such as water, electricity and welfare to millions more. Roughly 27mn of South Africa’s 60mn citizens still receive state support grants.

This week, Ramaphosa will sign into law a bill he said would “end healthcare apartheid” by overhauling a two-tier system that puts quality medical care out of reach for millions of poor citizens. The bill, which economists say will cost the Treasury billions of dollars, could give the ANC another electoral boost.

But the party has struggled to live up to lofty promises of economic equality and began to attract people more interested in power and political patronage than good governance, observers said.

“There are some people who genuinely care . . . but an increasing number of people got into the party for access to state coffers and contracts,” said Ebrahim Fakir, a political analyst with the Johannesburg-based Electoral Institute For Sustainable Democracy In Africa.

Nokwanele Balizulu, a local chief and grandmother who lives opposite Mandela’s former home in his childhood village of Qunu in Eastern Cape, said that despite her deep disappointment in the unfulfilled dividends after 30 years of democracy, the idea of voting for any party other than the ANC was unthinkable.

“If we change our votes, the new government will come up with new problems,” she said.

So-called legacy loyalty means that despite significant discontent, the ANC is still trusted more than any other political party, said Sussman.

“One has to differentiate between the ANC the political party and the ANC the governing party,” he added.

The campaign in the urban economic heartlands of KwaZulu-Natal province, which has the country’s biggest port, and Gauteng, home to Johannesburg, will also be decisive. The two provinces account for roughly a third of seats in South Africa’s proportional representation system.

If the ANC falls just short of a majority, it could stitch together a coalition with smaller parties in which it remains the dominant force. This would risk an unstable government comprising multiple ideologically opposed groups. A bigger fall would mean relying on larger rivals that could force policy and appointment trade-offs.

Despite the governing party’s woes, opposition parties have struggled to gain traction. The ANC’s main rival, the business-friendly Democratic Alliance that many see as representing white interests, has never broken past 26 per cent of the vote.

However, the Economic Freedom Fighters and uMkhonto weSizwe may pose a greater threat, particularly in urban areas, analysts said.

“Because the political culture has been set by the ANC, ironically, the challengers that have made the greatest strides are breakaways from existing parties,” said Tessa Dooms, director of the Rivonia Circle political think-tank.

The Economic Freedom Fighters and uMkhonto weSizwe “come with the ANC’s organising capacity, machinery and some of its fundraisers”, she added.

In Cato Crest, a crowded township in KwaZulu-Natal’s Durban, ANC and uMkhonto weSizwe canvassers were out on a recent sunny afternoon, knocking on the same voters’ doors.

“We are not exactly where we want to be as a country, but the ANC is the only party that can get us there,” said Nkosikhona Ngalo, wearing a rainbow-coloured bib as he campaigned for the party’s LGBTQ+ wing.

But with GDP forecast to grow by a sluggish 1 per cent this year, well below the level necessary to lift the country’s economic prospects, “the ANC has to be seen to be doing more”, said Fakir of the Electoral Institute For Sustainable Democracy In Africa.

“This is the last time the party is going to be able to ride on liberation credentials.”

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