South Africans are heading to the polls to vote in the most significant municipal elections of the ANC’s twenty-two years in power.
The ruling party is expected to face severe competition across the country in what many analysts see as a plebiscite on the scandal-hit government of President Jacob Zuma.
Major urban areas previously regarded as safe territory for the ANC – including Johannesburg, Pretoria and Port Elizabeth – are being targeted by the centrist Democratic Alliance and the radical Economic Freedom Fighters, both of whom hope to land significant gains at the expense of the ruling party.
Final election polls give the ANC a four-point lead over the DA in the key municipality of Tshwane, which includes Pretoria, and suggest a slender lead for the ruling party in Johannesburg. The Democratic Alliance have poured significant campaign resources into winning Johannesburg in the hope of taking control of the business capital and delivering a symbolic blow to the ANC. The election provides the first major test for DA leader Mmusi Maimane and will be a major indicator of his appeal to elusive working-class black voters.
The election will also test the renewed influence of Julius Malema’s Economic Freedom Fighters. The radical party – dedicated to forced redistribution of white land and public ownership of the mines – are targeting significant gains in Limpopo province and additional council seats in major urban areas. An ENCA poll-of-polls suggests that the party could win 9% of the national vote share.
A disappointing ANC performance could lead to a resumption of calls for President Zuma to resign. Since his comfortable re-election in 2014, the President has faced repeated political and personal scandals that have undermined the popularity of the ANC and eroded confidence in his judgement.
After months of legal wrangling, Zuma was ordered by the country’s Constitutional Court to repay the inflated costs of home improvements at his Nkandla private estate. The Court ruled that Zuma had violated the constitution by ignoring previous rulings by public protector Thuli Madonsela.
The President’s woes deepened when long-standing accusations re-emerged that he had cultivated inappropriate personal ties with the Guptas, a powerful Indian business family. Senior politicians have alleged that they were offered government positions by the Guptas.
Meanwhile, confidence in Zuma’s political judgement was eroded last December when he sacked respected finance minister Nhlanhla Nene at the expense of a little-known backbench MP – before drafting in Pravin Gordhan following an investor outcry.
The election is taking place at an inauspicious time for the government. The economy has virtually ground to a standstill with the South African Reserve Bank predicting economic growth of 0% for 2016. Official unemployment remains at more than one in four, according to the statistics office, while ratings agency Fitch has downgraded the country’s local debt, stoking long-standing fears of a sovereign downgrade.