In South Africa, the ANC enters the campaign under threatening skies

The electoral season is open in South Africa

In South Africa, the ANC enters the campaign under threatening skies

The electoral season is open in South Africa. Three months before the national and local legislative elections scheduled for May 29, the parties are beginning to unveil their programs. Saturday February 24, it was the turn of the African National Congress (ANC). A highly anticipated meeting as the ruling party prepares to fight one of its most arduous battles since the end of apartheid. Threatened with losing its majority for the first time since the election of Nelson Mandela in 1994, the ANC must convince that it can still halt the decline that threatens South Africa.

Long accustomed to winning more than 60% of the vote, the party is seeing an increasing number of polls predicting a brutal fall, around 40-45%. While the result is unlikely to threaten President Cyril Ramaphosa's re-election, it could force his party to ally with another to retain power – voters vote for MPs, who elect the president. The prospect is worrying, as the emergence of coalitions at the local level has been accompanied, in recent years, by strong instability - six mayors have succeeded each other in two years at the head of Johannesburg.

Faced with galvanized rivals, the ANC needs to show that the movement still constitutes a formidable electoral war machine. It was in a packed 75,000-seat stadium in Durban that Cyril Ramaphosa delivered the program intended to “restore the confidence” of South Africans, promising in particular the creation of 3.5 million jobs. An announcement with the air of déjà vu, while unemployment is, by far, the first concern of residents, according to a recent survey.

Already in 2019, the ANC committed to creating 275,000 jobs per year. Five years later, unemployment rose from 29% to 31.9%. Weighed down by an average growth of 0.8% since 2012, the South African economy is unable to absorb new entrants to the labor market. Cyril Ramaphosa knows this, who mostly talks about positions in the public service. Like an admission of helplessness, while in a corner of the screen which broadcast the president's speech, a box reminded at regular intervals that the country is still suffering the agonies of electricity load shedding.

A bombshell

It has been more than a year since these cuts, made necessary to avoid saturation of the network, have become incessant. They are the most obvious testimony to the deterioration of the economy and to what the president modestly calls the “missteps” of the ANC. The party was unable or unwilling to listen to those who encouraged it, from the beginning of the 2000s, to invest massively in the construction of new power plants. In the process, Eskom, the public electricity company, became the symbol of corruption which infiltrated everywhere during the mandate of Jacob Zuma (2009-2018).

In 2019, Cyril Ramaphosa was elected on the promise of a “new dawn”. “We have learned from our mistakes,” the president insisted again on Saturday. But apart from a few sidelines of ANC officials concerned by the courts, the promised “renewal” is struggling to materialize. Several tutelary figures have thrown a spanner in the works in recent months. “I’m told I have to campaign next year and tell people to vote for the ANC. How can I do that when I know perfectly well that the ANC branch in this or that constituency is run by a criminal? We cannot tell people that they must vote for a criminal,” said former President Thabo Mbeki, for example, in August 2023.

A sign of the feverishness of the ANC, its secretary general, Fikile Mbalula, usually implacable with the snipers, showed surprising flexibility, evoking “constructive criticism”. The party no longer has a choice. He must rake in all the votes, even if it means putting his sacrosanct “renewal” into the background.

The ANC thus hoped to rely on Jacob Zuma, the very person who embodies all the excesses that the party has sworn to eradicate, to mobilize in its stronghold of Kwazulu-Natal. Originally from the province, the former president remains popular in this region which promises to be the main battleground in the upcoming election – it is no coincidence that the ANC chose to launch its campaign in Durban , the largest city in Kwazulu-Natal.

But the former president decided otherwise. Pushed to resign against the backdrop of multiple scandals in 2018, erected as a symbol of all the country's ills, then sent to prison after refusing to testify before a commission of inquiry into corruption, Jacob Zuma did not digest the humiliation. In mid-December 2023, the former leader announced that he would not vote for the ANC and threw his forces behind a newly created party, Umkhonto we sizwe.

The figure of « Tinstwalo »

This movement does not simply take up the name of the armed wing of the ANC from the time of the struggle against apartheid. It also borrows its colors, swapping the dominant yellow for green. Even by gathering a modest number of votes, the newcomer could hasten the decline of the ANC by shattering the votes of part of its traditional electorate.

Faced with gathering clouds, Cyril Ramaphosa promised that the party “would not just celebrate [its] achievements over the last thirty years”… before devoting a third of his speech to this exercise. As he did during his state of the nation speech at the beginning of February, the president invoked at length the figure of a certain Tintswalo, supposed to embody the “Born Free” generation, to illustrate the successes of the ANC.

Tintswalo is an imaginary young woman “born free,” in 1994, into “a world light years away from the South Africa of her parents, grandparents, and great-grandparents.” Delivered from racial oppression by the ANC, she grew up in one of 4.7 million government-subsidized homes, enjoying free health care and an education that took her to university thanks to a bourse. After graduating, Tintswalo landed a job thanks to the ANC's affirmative action policies, before founding a happy home.

The parable is attractive. But how many Tintswalos willing to vote for the ANC actually count in South Africa? Nearly 45% of South Africans aged 15 to 34 are unemployed, the opposition was quick to point out, pointing out that Tintswalo could just as easily become one of the 75 people killed every day in South Africa or l one of 115 women who are victims of rape or violence every day.