DURBAN, South Africa, Jan 11 – South Africa’s ruling ANC party launches its election campaign on Saturday ahead of polls in May that it is tipped to win despite recently falling support, internal divisions and a sluggish economy.
The African National Congress, which has ruled since the end of apartheid 25 years ago, suffered a sharp decline in popularity under the scandal-ridden presidency of Jacob Zuma, who was ousted last February after nine years at the helm.
The party of Nelson Mandela suffered a bloody nose in 2016 local elections when it won a record low of 54 percent of the vote and lost control of the major cities of Johannesburg and Pretoria.
But a recent IPSOS survey predicted that the ANC could garner as much as 61 percent of the vote in May’s national and provincial elections.
The forecast upswing is pinned on the appointment of moderate pro-business reformer Cyril Ramaphosa as president after ANC lawmakers forced Zuma to resign as corruption scandals piled up.
“If there was no Ramaphosa, the ANC was not going to win this election,” Xolani Dube, a political analyst at the Durban-based Xubera think-tank, told AFP.
“ANC was on the brink of losing these elections and Ramaphosa came as a saviour.”
Other analysts are more cautious, saying that the ANC could win even without Ramaphosa, but with a significantly reduced majority.
On Saturday, the party expects 85,000 activists to turn out at a soccer stadium in Durban for the launch of its election manifesto.
Senior party officials have this week fanned out across the surrounding Kwa-Zulu Natal province, canvassing for support.
Launching its election manifesto in heavily populated Kwa-Zulu Natal — Zuma’s home province and former stronghold — is a strategic choice, seen as an attempt to unite the ANC after last year’s power struggle.
‘Restore the movement’
Ramaphosa has publicly tried to mend ties, sitting next to Zuma and praising him at party events this week.
“Ramaphosa needs to deal with the ghost of Jacob Zuma that is roaming around ANC structures,” Dube said.
Ramaphosa admitted this week that the party had endured “significant reversals, decline and drift”.
“We find ourselves at another key moment in our history, where we are called upon to restore the movement,” he said in an address marking 107 years since the party was founded.
In policy terms, the manifesto is set to underline the ANC’s commitment to land reform to tackle racial inequality – setting the stage for one of the election’s fiercest battlegrounds.
One of Ramaphosa’s flagship pledges is to change the constitution to allow land to be taken from minority white owners without compensation – a plan aimed at attracting landless black voters that has alarmed many foreign investors.
The manifesto will also “emphasise unity and organisational renewal because they know their recent history has not been a good one,” said University of South Africa professor Somadoda Fikeni.
An electoral win with more than 60 percent would bolster the ANC’s confidence.
“They could see that as a recovery mode on which they could build. The biggest psychological threshold is if they fall below 60 percent, that is what they will be worried about,” Fikeni said.
The South African economy is forecast to have grown just 0.7 percent last year, with unemployment remaining at record highs of over 27 percent.
The ANC will face the main opposition Democratic Alliance and the radical leftist Economic Freedom Fighters party in the election, but both parties have struggled to dent the ruling party since Zuma’s fall.
“In essence… the elections in 2019 will be fought between those who believe that ANC under Ramaphosa can rid itself of corruption and those who believe it cannot,” wrote journalist Jan-Jan Joubert, author of “Who Will Rule in 2019?”