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Despite its problematic ruling, South Africa's ANC is rooted to keep control

An ANC supporter cheers at pre-election rally on Sunday.

Ben Curtis/AP

The police station and library of this impoverished township, set ablaze by furious protesters three months ago, are still in ruins. Many of its shacks have no electricity or running water. But when Johannah Mokwena votes on Wednesday, she will cast her ballot for the African National Congress as always.

If you ask her why she still votes for South Africa's ruling party – despite her small two-room house and lack of indoor toilet and the frequent street protests here – Ms. Mokwena has a very practical reason: She's worried that the opposition parties would take away the 1,500 rand (about $160) that she gets in monthly social grants.

"The ANC did a lot of things for us," the 59-year-old child-care worker says. "We get grants from the ANC. I'll vote for them until I die."

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Twenty years after the ANC won the first democratic election in South African history, it is expected to cruise to yet another victory in elections this week. If the latest polls are accurate, the ANC will win about 63 to 65 per cent of the vote – down only slightly from the 66 per cent it received in the previous election.

In dirt-poor communities such as Zithobeni, east of Pretoria, the lack of enthusiasm for the ANC is palpable. Many people openly declare they will vote for opposition parties for the first time. Yet the advantages of incumbency – including the 15 million grants that the ANC government distributes every month as pensions and child-care support – will be a key factor in helping the party keep power on Wednesday.

Opposition parties have pledged to protect the social grants, which are crucial in preventing hunger in South Africa. Yet surveys show that nearly half of South Africans believe they could lose the grants if the ANC is defeated – a whisper campaign that the ANC has actively encouraged.

The ANC's leader, President Jacob Zuma, has been widely criticized for failing to solve the persistent problems of high unemployment, inequality and corruption. But his party retains the loyalty of millions of South Africans who credit the ANC with liberating the country from apartheid.

The ANC's likely victory on Wednesday will be far from impressive. More than 10 million eligible voters haven't even bothered to register for the election. The voter turnout could be the lowest since democracy was established in 1994.

The new generation of teenage voters – the so-called Born Frees who were born after apartheid ended – are among the most apathetic: Barely a third have registered to vote.

On Sunday, in the final big rally of its campaign, the ANC brought more than 90,000 people into a huge soccer stadium in Johannesburg to hear Mr. Zuma speak. It confirmed that the ruling party is still the best-organized in South Africa, with the largest network of volunteers and party members across the country. Its vast organizational abilities – and its use of state resources, including the government advertising budget and the state television broadcaster – have given it a big advantage in Wednesday's election.

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With careful control of Mr. Zuma's campaign appearances, the ANC was able to keep a tight grip on its election message. It has focused on South Africa's achievements since 1994, almost as if it is still campaigning against apartheid. The ANC was able to avoid much debate on major scandals like the police massacre of 34 protesters at the Marikana platinum mine and the controversial $23-million state-funded upgrade to Mr. Zuma's village home.

The only real suspense in Wednesday's election will be whether the ANC keeps its victory margin above the 60 per cent threshold. If it falls below 60 per cent, this could put pressure on the party to dump Mr. Zuma and choose a new leader. But this seems unlikely, according to the polls.

The strongest opposition party, the Democratic Alliance, is forecast to boost its vote to 23 or 24 per cent, compared with 17 per cent in the previous election, while the left-wing Economic Freedom Fighters will probably finish third with about 5 per cent. But the ANC is almost certain to retain control of every province, except Western Cape where the Democratic Alliance currently governs.

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About the Author
Africa Bureau Chief

Geoffrey York is The Globe and Mail's Africa correspondent.He has been a foreign correspondent for the newspaper since 1994, including seven years as the Moscow Bureau Chief and seven years as the Beijing Bureau Chief.He is a veteran war correspondent who has covered war zones since 1992 in places such as Somalia, Sudan, Chechnya, Iraq and Afghanistan. More

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