Where South Africa’s Crunch Election Will Be Won and Lost

(Bloomberg) — The 56,000-seat Moses Mabhida Stadium in the South African port city of Durban was jammed for the unveiling of the ruling African National Congress’s election manifesto launch.

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“We are supported by millions and millions of people,” President Cyril Ramaphosa told the cheering crowd in February, scoffing at the notion that his party was a spent political force after three decades in power. “The ANC remains the party of choice.”

In the weeks that followed, the arena built to host the football World Cup in 2010 was full again. But it was the ANC’s rivals, the Inkatha Freedom Party and the Economic Freedom Fighters, that packed it to capacity.

As the country heads into its tightest election since apartheid ended in 1994, the ANC is facing competition like never before. A series of opinion polls show the party risks losing its parliamentary majority and control of several provinces on Wednesday, a backlash against slipshod government services and rampant poverty, unemployment and crime.

The three provinces that are home to South Africa’s biggest cities have different political dynamics and will be the key determinants of the biggest winners and losers this week.

The eastern KwaZulu-Natal province, which includes Durban, is home to a fifth of registered voters and has a history of febrile politics. This month, 80 of the ruling party’s top leaders went door-to-door in the region’s townships to drum up support. They fielded a litany of complaints about a lack of jobs and ineffective municipal councilors.

“You shouldn’t find me sitting here in my home in the middle of the day during work hours, but I am because I don’t have a job,” Thuli Khawula, 39, told ANC Chairman Gwede Mantashe, who visited her home in Sitholinhlanhla, about 170 kilometers (106 miles) north of Durban. “Those are some of the things which make me doubt whether or not I should still be voting for the ANC.”

The ANC wrested control of KwaZulu-Natal from the Inkatha Freedom Party, or IFP, in 2004 and garnered 54% of the vote there in 2019, but has lost a number of recent municipal by-elections to its resurgent rival.

A new party headed by former President Jacob Zuma, meanwhile, has also been pulling the crowds. The charismatic 82-year-old led South Africa for almost nine scandal-marred years before he was ousted in 2018 and broke from the ANC in December. He hails from KwaZulu-Natal and remains popular among his fellow Zulu speakers.

A poll released this month by MarkData and commissioned by broadcaster eNCA, showed Zuma’s uMkhonto weSizwe Party, or MKP, winning 46.4% support in the province, the IFP 14.5% and the ANC just 11.1%. A series of other surveys also show the ANC losing ground, although some analysts have questioned their methodology.

The ANC and IFP fought an undeclared civil war in KwaZulu-Natal in the late 1980s and early 1990s that was fueled by the apartheid government and claimed thousands of lives before a truce was agreed.

Since then, there have been scores of political assassinations in the province amid bitter rivalry over government posts and contracts. It was the epicenter of deadly riots that erupted in July 2021 after Zuma was arrested for refusing to testify before a corruption inquiry.

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Gauteng, the smallest but most populous of the nine provinces, is also critical to the ANC’s fortunes. While the party has ruled the central region since 1994, it won a shade over half the vote there in 2019 and the MarkData poll shows that slipping to 41% this year.

Home to 24% of the electorate, Gauteng includes Johannesburg, the largest city, Pretoria, the capital, and Ekurhuleni, a major industrial hub. All three are ruled by shaky coalitions that have struggled to deliver basic services.

The ruling party has gone all out over recent months to try and rebuild support in the region, implementing plans to create 500,000 temporary jobs and carrying out repairs to hundreds of faulty transformers to reduce electricity outages. On the campaign trail, its officials have handed out free party T-shirts, blankets and even flu medication.

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Lerato Makau, 73, who lives in the small town of Refilwe northeast of Pretoria, reflects a view held by many older Black voters — that despite the ANC’s shortcomings they can’t envision voting for anyone else.

“This is Nelson Mandela’s party,” she said. “We went to jail for this party when it was fighting with us to be free from the oppression that we faced from the White government. Things are not going to be perfect all the time, but I am alive, I am healthy, I am provided for — that is because of the ANC.”

The main opposition Democratic Alliance, or DA, poses the biggest challenge to the ANC in Gauteng. Yet the EFF’s calls to nationalize banks and mines and place all land under state custodianship have endeared it to increasing numbers of Black township residents, whose standard of living has improved little since apartheid ended.

ActionSA, which is led by former Johannesburg Mayor Herman Mashaba and won 16% of the vote in the city in the 2021 municipal elections, is also expected to put in a strong showing in Gauteng, most likely at the DA’s expense. The MKP is set to draw some votes away from the ANC and EFF.

The politics of the Western Cape, which includes the tourism hub of Cape Town, differ markedly from the rest of the country. It is the only province where the ANC doesn’t hold an outright majority, with the DA having held power there since 2009.

The DA’s dominance is being eroded by smaller rivals including the Patriotic Alliance. The party was founded by Gayton McKenzie, a reformed criminal turned businessman, in 2013 and has made inroads in mixed-race and rural areas. Then there’s the Freedom Front Plus, which has boosted its support among the Afrikaner community.

The DA also risks losing the backing of the Muslim community, which makes up 5.2% of the Western Cape’s population, because of its refusal to adopt a strong stance against Israel over its war in Gaza, as the ANC has done.

Residents of the gang-infested areas around Cape Town say they want the province’s next administration to prioritize tackling rampant crime.

“Our life is miserable, it is terrifying,” said Nomawethu Bongo, 71, an ANC supporter who lives in the blue-collar suburb of Philippi. The gangs “are not afraid of any law enforcement. They run things here,” she said.

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–With assistance from Paul Richardson, Leonardo Nicoletti, Michael Ovaska, Amanda Cox and Dean Halford.

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