Can the ANC win South Africa's pivotal 2024 election?

Governing party on course to lose majority for first time since end of apartheid as 'economic chaos trumps nostalgia'

South African president Cyril Ramaphosa addresses new ANC members in Chatsworth township in May 2023
Cyril Ramaphosa has failed to tackle corruption during his five years as president
(Image credit: Rajesh Jantilal/AFP via Getty Images)

Cyril Ramaphosa has fired the starting gun for a general election that is widely viewed as the most consequential in South Africa since the end of apartheid 30 years ago.

The current president is looking to drum up enthusiasm for his ruling African National Congress (ANC) party, which has governed since the advent of democracy in 1994. But next year's vote comes as the country is grappling with economic chaos, sky-high unemployment, rampant crime, rising anti-immigration sentiment and energy shortages.

Apartheid "certainly left a bitter legacy" of "violence, inequality and poor policing", said Fergal Keane on BBC News, but "increasing numbers of South Africans are demanding that the ANC be held accountable for what has happened under its watch".

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An end to unrivalled dominance?

Africa's most industrialised nation is "profoundly fed up with corruption, crime and joblessness", said The Economist.

An Ipsos poll asking citizens from 29 countries in 2023 about the direction of their nations, found only Argentina and Peru had a higher share of people saying things were going wrong. With no end in sight to the endemic corruption that has become synonymous with the ANC over the past decade, the Financial Times reported that "economic chaos is trumping nostalgia" in the minds of voters.

This is reflected in support for a party that has enjoyed unrivalled dominance since it swept to power in 1994, but now "appears to be in freefall", said Africa News, with polls suggesting that the ANC could drop below 50% for the first time in three decades.

A "divided party with a reputation tarnished by corruption, nepotism and a poor economic record", the ANC is losing ground to opposition parties, especially the centrist Democratic Alliance (DA), an amalgamation of parties that were part of white minority rule, said Africa News.

The ANC may well fail to clinch a majority for the first time since the end of apartheid, said David Pilling, also in the Financial Times, "but liberation movements have staying power and it is unlikely to lose outright".

For many Black South Africans, who make up more than 80% of the population, the ANC is "still the devil they know", said The Economist, and those who stop voting for it "often choose to stop voting altogether, rather than opt for another party".

Just look at the drastic decline in turnout over recent election cycles. Thirty years ago 86% of eligible voters turned out to vote in the country's first multi-racial election. Next year analysts expect that number to fall below even the 49% who voted in 2019. Most worrying for the future of South African democracy is the possibility that less than a quarter of the post-1994 "born-free" generation will bother to vote.

For this age group, "the heroic status of Nelson Mandela, the iconic statesman and first president of post-apartheid era South Africa, has taken a knock for his insistence on unity, not justice", said Al Jazeera.

'A new phase of South Africa's democratic journey'

After six straight terms, the next election – to be held between May and August 2024 – is likely to be "one of the most important for the country, paving the way for a coalition government at national level", wrote former diplomat Mohamed Cassimjee for the Chatham House think tank. It could mark the start of "a new phase of South Africa's democratic journey, as the ANC's hold on power weakens and the electorate increasingly moves away from loyalty towards delivery".

The ANC still has an unparalleled grassroots network of activists that could drag the party over the crucial 50% threshold, but a result between 45% and 50% remains the most likely on current polling, meaning it will be able to rule with the support of one of the minor parties. 

This could open the door to a coalition agreement with the far-left ANC offshoot the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF), led by the charismatic firebrand Julius Malema, who has called for the expropriation of land without compensation, and the nationalisation of industry. While still unlikely, an ANC-EFF tie-up "could result in a shift away from the West and more of an emphasis on 'anti-imperialism'", said Cassimjee.

The lack of viable alternatives to the ANC may yet prove its saviour but "reflects the poor health of South African politics", said The Economist. Seven out of 10 South Africans say they are dissatisfied with the way democracy works, while 72% say they would ditch democracy for an unelected leader who could deliver jobs and combat crime.

"The ANC may have one last triumph in 2024," concluded the newspaper, "but the battle for the soul of South Africa is only just beginning."

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