JOHANNESBURG, Apr 7 – South Africa’s ANC party, the celebrated political force that ended white-minority rule and ushered in democracy, had hoped its dominance of national politics might last for generations.
But deep concerns over the country’s post-apartheid direction and President Jacob Zuma’s unpopularity have raised the sudden prospect of the African National Congress failing to win the next election in 2019.
Zuma’s recent sacking of respected finance minister Pravin Gordhan brought to a head a nationwide crisis over record unemployment, stagnant growth and corruption, 23 years after Nelson Mandela led the ANC to power.
Zuma will complete his maximum two terms in office in 2019, and is seen as backing his ex-wife, former African Union chief Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, to take over.
Dlamini-Zuma inspires little public support in South Africa, while the ANC was already dealt a sharp shock in last year’s local elections when it suffered its worst-ever results.
“If they push leaders who do not have credibility and you add to that the extent of the scandals they have faced, they stand a very good chance of losing their majority in 2019,” political analyst Ralph Mathekga told AFP.
The party still commands 249 of 400 seats in parliament having secured 62.15 percent of the national vote in 2014 — but it slipped to 55 percent in last year’s polls.
South Africans’ increasing rejection of the ANC is a far cry from the party’s history as the liberation movement founded in 1923 and which operated underground during the apartheid regime.
Lauded across the globe for its moral authority and long fight for black rights, the ANC’s path to power was crowned by Mandela’s inauguration as president in 1994.
– Faded glory –
But the realities of decades in office have taken their toll, as many poor South Africans feel the party has failed to tackle inadequate housing and education, stark racial inequality and scarce opportunities.
“The prospect of losing South Africa has never been one the ANC has had to face up to,” Karen Heese, an analyst at Municipal IQ data specialists, wrote in the Business Day newspaper this week.
“Trend lines… suggest that even before the current crisis faced by the ANC, the party was likely to face difficult polls in 2019.”
Negative sentiments towards the ANC mean that opposition parties are itching to take advantage.
Under its first black leader, Mmusi Maimane, the main opposition Democratic Alliance (DA) party climbed to 24 percent in the 2016 vote.
Now the party, promoting a liberal, equal-opportunity message, is pushing hard to draw in disaffected ANC voters ahead of 2019.
But it has struggled to shed its image as a party for middle-class whites.
Its challenges were laid bare when former party leader and premier of the Western Cape region Helen Zille sparked a furious backlash last month by saying that colonialism had brought some benefits for South Africans.
– Well-placed opposition? –
Attacking the ANC from the other flank is the radical Economic Freedom Fighters under former Zuma protege Julius Malema, a firebrand populist.
Formed in 2013 following Malema’s expulsion from the ANC, the EFF is a revolutionary socialist party that wants to overturn the post-apartheid consensus.
It taps into frustration in the poverty-stricken townships, and inspires horror in the elite by encouraging black communities to seize land at will.
Declining support may force the ANC to seek a coalition with one or more opposition parties — but linking up with either the EFF and DA looks unlikely to be effective.
“The route by which the ANC could retain power by coalition is going to be predicated on which ANC faction is indeed in power,” independent analyst Daniel Silke told AFP.
“If the faction is more populist, left-of-centre, they may be looking to make deals with the EFF. If the faction is a more centrist, market-friendly faction then the DA becomes more attractive.”
The run-up to the election could be traumatic for the ruling party, with some experts predicting that opponents of Zuma’s faction could split away to re-claim what they see as the spirit of the “real ANC”.
“The Zuma faction is currently positioned to retain control of the ANC,” wrote Eurasia consultancy analyst Darias Jonker this week.
Jonker added the fall-out from Gordhan’s sacking “is very likely to see the ANC itself fail to win 50 percent of the vote in 2019”.
Despite such dire predictions, Zuma remains bullish that loyal South Africans still hold the ANC dear to their hearts for ending apartheid.
As he likes to predict, the party will rule “until Jesus returns”.