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The African National Congress (ANC) has gained in the polls over the last month, coming closer to the 50 percent mark with South Africa’s general elections just around the corner. A daily tracking poll by the Social Research Foundation shows the ANC polling at 43 percent on May 21 — up from 37 percent on April 15.

While the ANC will remain the largest party in South Africa’s lower house, it’s on course to lose a parliamentary majority for the first time since the end of apartheid in 1994. That means it will probably have to form a coalition government. The upcoming elections are likely to deliver a historic result.

South Africa will hold elections to the National Assembly and provincial assemblies on May 29. The National Assembly will elect the next president.

The incumbent, President Cyril Ramaphosa, is likely to return to power. Dissatisfaction with the party that led the struggle against apartheid is high. The ANC’s competitors are also growing.

A Litany of Problems

The ANC has been tarnished by corruption, crime, misgovernance, and widespread discontent with the status quo, colored by race.

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Youth unemployment is over 60 percent. Black South Africans are five times as likely as whites to be unemployed.

South Africa has seen electric power blackouts, known as loadshedding, for 17 years, in part due to corruption and mismanagement at Eskom, the state-owned electric power company. Privatization of the domestic electric power sector is advancing. But not early enough to deliver results for voters heading to the polls next week. South African government investigations revealed a much broader pattern of “state capture” — with public and private racketeers siphoning of tens of billions of dollars in public funds.

While the ANC has deep loyalty among South Africa’s black population, who make up roughly 80 percent of the country, it also faces a growing number of blacks who are fed up with the party’s corruption or feel it hasn’t gone far enough to redress the structural economic effects of apartheid. The ANC’s vote share fell from its peak of 69.7 percent in 2004 to 58 percent in 2019.

The Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) led by Julius Malema — a former leader of the ANC’s youth wing — advocates more radical redistributive measures, like the nationalization of banks and mines and the seizure of white-owned land. Whites make up roughly 7 percent of the population but own 70 percent of the land.

South Africa must address its inequities. But it also needs economic growth. To do so, it must combat corruption and misgovernance, and produce a more responsive politics.

A Crowded Field

The ANC has suffered from some key defections in recent years. Former President Jacob Zuma left the ANC last year to lead the uMkhonto weSizwe (MK) — a party, named after the ANC’s former militant wing, that, like the EFF, espouses more direct redistribution of wealth.

The country’s constitutional court just declared Zuma ineligible to run for office due to a previous criminal conviction. But the MK could still garner a sympathy vote on top of Zuma’s loyal supporters.

Polls by IPSOS show that the MK’s entry has actually hurt the EFF more than the ANC. They also indicate that the ANC would likely have to form a coalition with either the EFF or MK. And that may polarize the country further as the Democratic Alliance (DA) and other mainly white parties in the Multi-Party Charter (MPC) coalition push for decentralization. There’s even talk of “CapeXit” — independence for the Western Cape province, where mixed-race South Africans (known as “coloreds”) make up just under a majority of the population.

The MPC hasn’t done much to expand its support base. It polls at 31.5 percent in the IPSOS poll — roughly near its current 28 percent seat share in the National Assembly.

Ramaphosa’s Last Dance

President Ramaphosa, a pivotal negotiator in the talks to end apartheid, left a career in business to return to politics in 2012, serving as deputy president under Jacob Zuma. As president, Ramaphosa’s tenure has been marked by “near-worship of consensus and an aversion to confrontation,” writes Alec Russell of the Financial Times.

In recent months, he’s pushed forward legislation to reform the sclerotic civil service. And last week, Ramaphosa signed a new health care bill into law that would provide universal coverage while barring private health insurance. The law is opposed by the center-right, mainly white DA, which says it would cost $10 billion annually.

The new health care plan will be implemented gradually and face judicial scrutiny. The momentum suggests the term-limited Ramaphosa will return as president with a stronger hand than expected more than a month ago. But his second and final term as president will likely mark the start of a new and potentially unwieldy era of coalition politics in post-apartheid South Africa.

Arif Rafiq is the editor of Globely News. Rafiq has contributed commentary and analysis on global issues for publications such as Foreign Affairs, Foreign Policy, the New Republic, the New York Times, and POLITICO Magazine.

He has appeared on numerous broadcast outlets, including Al Jazeera English, the BBC World Service, CNN International, and National Public Radio.

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