South Africans are voting in an election that could send their young democracy into the unknown

CAPE TOWN, South Africa (AP) — South Africans are voting Wednesday in an election seen as their country’s most important in 30 years, and one that could put their young democracy in unknown territory.

At stake is the three-decade dominance of the African National Congress party, which led South Africa out of apartheid’s brutal white minority rule in 1994. It is now the target of a new generation of discontent in a country of 62 million people — half of whom are estimated to be living in poverty.

Africa’s most advanced economy has some of the world’s deepest socio-economic problems, including one of the worst unemployment rates at 32%. Some groups say that is an undercount.

The lingering inequality, with poverty and joblessness disproportionately affecting the Black majority, threatens to unseat the party that promised to end it by bringing down apartheid under the slogan of a better life for all.

South African President Cyril Ramaphosa, the leader of the ANC, has promised to “do better.” The ANC has asked for more time and patience.

Any change in the ANC’s hold on power could be monumental for South Africa.

After winning six successive national elections, several polls have the ANC’s support at less than 50% ahead of this one, an unprecedented drop. It might lose its majority in Parliament for the first time, although it’s widely expected to hold the most seats.

Support has been fading. The ANC won 57.5% of the vote in the last national election in 2019, its worst result to date.

If it does lose its majority, the ANC will likely face the prospect of having to form a coalition with others to stay in government and keep Ramaphosa as president. An ANC having to co-govern has never happened before.

“Ever since I existed — I don’t know, maybe my parents (did) — but I’ve never seen anything that is of change,” said 22-year-old Michelle Khamanga, a recent college graduate who is one of the millions of youth who weren’t born when apartheid ended and are now able to vote. They know only of South Africa’s current problems.

In her age bracket, the unemployment rate is a desperate 60%.

The opposition to the ANC is fierce, but fragmented. The two biggest opposition parties, the Democratic Alliance and the Economic Freedom Fighters, are not predicted to increase their vote by anything near enough to overtake the ANC.

Instead, disgruntled South Africans are moving to an array of opposition parties; more than 50 will contest the national election, many of them new. One is led by South Africa’s previous president, who seeks revenge on his former ANC colleagues.

Some South Africans will express their discontent by not showing up, tired of promises unfulfilled. “They are going to say they will build houses for us, they are going to say everything. But after tomorrow they will forget about us, and then it is another five years, and then what then? So I do not think I am going to vote,” said Tawfiqa Daas in Cape Town.

The ANC says it is confident of retaining its majority. Ramaphosa has pointed out how South Africa is a far better country now than under apartheid, when Black people were barred from voting, weren’t allowed to move around freely, had to live in certain areas and were oppressed in every way.

Memories of that era, and the defining vote that ended it in 1994, still frame much of everyday South Africa. But fewer remember it as time goes on.

“This will be the seventh time that South Africans of all races, from all walks of life, from all corners of our country, will go to vote for national and provincial government,” Ramaphosa said in his last speech to the country before the election. “We will once again assert the fundamental principle … that no government can justly claim authority unless it is based on the will of all the people.”

Ramaphosa outlined some of his ANC government’s polices to boost the economy, create jobs and extend social support for the poor. The speech sparked a furious reaction from opposition parties, who accused him of breaking an electoral law that stops those in public office from using the office to promote a party.

The election will be held on one day across South Africa’s nine provinces, with nearly 28 million people registered to vote at more than 23,000 polling stations. Final results are expected by Sunday.

On show will be the country’s contradictions, from the economic hub of Johannesburg — labelled Africa’s richest city — to the picturesque tourist city of Cape Town, to the informal settlements of shacks in their outskirts.

While 80% of South Africans are Black, it’s a multiracial country with significant populations of white people, those of Indian descent and those with biracial heritage. There are 12 official languages.

It’s the diversity that Nelson Mandela, South Africa’s first Black president, highlighted as a beautiful thing by referring to his country as a “Rainbow Nation.” It’s a diversity that, with the emergence of many new opposition parties, also might now be reflected in its politics.


AP video journalist Annie Risemberg in Johannesburg contributed.


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