Monday, 29 November, 2021

South Africa holds local polls set to challenge the ANC

South Africans will vote Monday in local elections expected to reflect growing discontent with the African National Congress party, which was losing popularity even before deadly unrest ravaged the country in July.

The historic ANC is no longer basking in the glory of its struggle against white-minority rule, which ended with Nelson Mandela's election in 1994.

High-placed party members, including ex-president Jacob Zuma, have been fingered in a number of corruption scandals -- the latest linked to coronavirus spending.

Africa's most industrialised nation was in recession even before the pandemic, and unemployment hit a record 34.4 percent in recent months.

In July, Zuma's imprisonment sparked riots and looting that left at least 354 dead and hammered the economy.

President Cyril Ramaphosa said the violence was instigated to "provoke a popular insurrection".

Decades of mismanagement have meanwhile corroded state utilities, causing water cuts and rolling blackouts that even interrupted the ANC's own campaigning.

Polls suggest a majority of voters could for the first time turn against the party that has governed South Africa since the advent of democracy 27 years ago.

"It's a watermark for the ANC, and also a watermark for South Africa," said William Gumede of the Democracy Works think tank.

Just over 26.2 million people are registered to vote out of an eligible population of around 40 million.

They will be choosing local councillors in 257 municipalities.

Some 10,000 troops were called up to secure the vote, adding to about 25,000 already deployed to help quell the latest unrest.

The extra soldiers will patrol four hotspots for possible violence -- including the most populous province of Gauteng and the eastern KwaZulu-Natal province, where July's riots started.

Polls open at 7:00 am (0500 GMT) and close at 9:00 pm.

- ANC 'clean-up' -

Ramaphosa and his team have been relentlessly campaigning across the country, with the president himself even stumping in small towns.

Their focus this past week has been on key battlegrounds in Gauteng, home to the capital Pretoria and financial hub Johannesburg, which the ANC lost for the first time in the last local elections in 2016.

That year the party won just under 54 percent of the vote, its worst electoral setback ever.

Former presidents Thabo Mbeki and Kgalema Motlanthe have also joined the Gauteng campaign trail, with Mbeki warning business leaders last week that if the ANC "fails the country will fail".

Meantime, the opposition is fractured.

The main Democratic Alliance, widely seen as a party for whites, has formed unlikely coalitions with the radical left-wing Economic Freedom Fighters.

But the local governments they have set up together often spend more time resolving internal bickering than working to provide services.

DA leader John Steenhuisen mounted a two-pronged defence at a recent campaign rally, saying: "Forget about all the emotional appeals from parties who will beg for your loyalty because they played a role in the liberation struggle.

"Forget about the small parties that don't have the numbers to represent you."

A record 1,700 of the 60,000 candidates in Monday's races are independents, reflecting disenchantment with the mainstream parties.

Their performance will set the scene for general elections in 2024.

"We want to fix the ANC to be an organisation you can trust," Ramaphosa said at a rally in Johannesburg's Soweto township on Friday.

"We are cleaning up the party," he said.

Earlier that day, angry residents blocked roads and burned tyres in protest over electricity cuts.