Day of reckoning for ANC as South Africa elects local councils

The African National Congress faces the sternest test to its iron grip on South African politics since apartheid ended 22 years ago as rampant poverty, a weak economy and scandals associated with President Jacob Zuma threaten to alienate voters and end its control of key cities.

The 104-year-old ruling party could lose control of Johannesburg, the commercial hub, the capital, Pretoria, and Port Elizabeth in Wednesday’s municipal election, surveys commissioned by broadcaster eNCA showed. The ANC’s share of the overall vote will probably slip to 54 percent from 62 percent in national ballot two years ago, according to a South African Citizens Survey poll of 1,300 adults published last week.

“Until now the ANC has seemed to be impregnable,” said Daryl Glaser, a politics professor at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg. “If one is to believe what the polls are detecting, then we are looking at something momentous.”

The ANC has won more than 60 percent of the vote in every election since Nelson Mandela led the party to power in 1994 and has shored up its support by increasing access to clean water and electricity and extending welfare grants to almost a third of the population. Yet Zuma’s legal troubles and a 27 percent unemployment rate have buoyed the opposition.

Poor Showing

ANC losses would fuel calls for Zuma, 72, to be ousted before his current presidential term ends in 2019. His approval rating dropped to 21 percent in February this year from 33 percent a year before, a poll of 2,000 adults conducted by market research company TNS in seven cities found. He’s faced increasing demands to quit since the nation’s top court ruled in March that he violated the constitution by refusing to repay taxpayer money spent on upgrading his private home.

Opposition gains may also force the ANC to rethink its policies, such as plans to introduce a minimum wage and cut the budget deficit. The Democratic Alliance, which already governs in Cape Town, proposes to make it easier to do business and hire and fire workers, while the Economic Freedom Fighters advocates the nationalization of mines, banks and land.

The municipalities oversee parks, libraries, sanitation, some roads and electricity and water distribution and had joint revenue of 309 billion rand ($22.3 billion) in the year ending June 2015.

ANC Surveys

The DA led the ANC by 41 percent to 26 percent in the Tshwane municipality, which includes Pretoria, and by 36 percent to 32 percent in Johannesburg, an eNCA poll of 1,500 people conducted last week showed. The EFF, led by ex-ANC youth leader Julius Malema, had 11 percent support in Tshwane and 9 percent in Johannesburg, the poll showed.

The ANC says its own surveys show it retaining control of the main centers, while the DA says the race is neck-and-neck in Tshwane and Port Elizabeth. Broadcaster ANN7 said its surveys showed the ANC retaining control of Johannesburg, leading the race in Pretoria and trailing the DA in Port Elizabeth.

For a QuickTake explainer on the election and latest polls, click here

“People have become much broader in their thinking,” Brigalia Bam, a former chairwoman of the Independent Electoral Commission, said at a panel discussion in Cape Town. “In the past they were very scared to wear an opposition party T-shirt. There are more people in the townships and villages who are now openly DA. The democratic process is maturing.”

The DA said Zuma’s administration has shown it’s incapable of turning around an economy which the International Monetary Fund expects will grow just 0.1 percent this year, the slowest rate since a 2009 recession. The rand has declined 40 percent against the dollar since Zuma took power on May 9, 2009, the most of 16 major currencies monitored by Bloomberg. Some of Zuma’s decisions, including firing a respected finance minister, have caused bouts of volatility.

“Under President Zuma, the ANC has become everything it once fought against, an organization that looks after the connected few at the expense of the many,” DA leader Mmusi Maimane, 36, told about 24,000 cheering supporters who packed the Dobsonville stadium in Soweto, near Johannesburg, at the party’s final rally on June 30. “This election is a fresh start for our country. Every week the DA is getting stronger and the ANC is losing ground.”

Speaking to a rally of 62,000 people who filled Johannesburg’s Ellis Park stadium on Sunday, Zuma exuded confidence.

“We have done exceptionally well to build our cities and are proud of their performance,” said the former ANC head of intelligence who’s led the party since 2007. “Our country has a brighter future under the ANC.”

The ANC has the advantage of incumbency and an election budget that dwarfs all of its rivals combined. The party has spent more than 1 billion rand on rallies, billboards, posters and t-shirts, Novula Mokonyane, the party’s campaign head, said last week in Cape Town. Other parties haven’t disclosed their budget. The DA’s campaign expenditure was 350 million rand, the Sunday Times reported, without saying where it got the information.

“The losses for the ANC will be quite substantial, but I think the extent of that sometimes gets exaggerated,” said Gary van Staden, an analyst at NKC African Economics in Paarl, near Cape Town. “If there’s any swing, it will be because people are disappointed with the quality of their lives and they don’t think the ANC has done enough to fix it.”