In any other democracy, the timing would have been catastrophic for the ruling party. An explosive 447-page investigation into an embarrassing political scandal – involving millions of dollars of wasted spending, personal benefits for the president, official wrongdoing and lavish living – has been released in the midst of a national election campaign, just a few weeks before the voters go to the polls.
And yet the ruling African National Congress, headed by President Jacob Zuma, is still virtually guaranteed to win the May 7 election in South Africa. Most analysts forecast that the ANC will receive between 55 and 65 per cent of the vote – more than twice as many votes as its nearest rival.
Twenty years after the death of apartheid, the ANC benefits from the weakness of South Africa's opposition parties, the deeply entrenched organizational strength of its own networks at the grassroots level, and the continued loyalty of most voters to the party that helped defeat apartheid.
And then there's the slippery Mr. Zuma himself. South African political commentators on Thursday were calling him a "Houdini" who will escape punishment for political scandals yet again. The reason? A single charitable sentence in the final report of the investigation into the extravagant $23-million state-funded improvements to his Nkandla village home. The sentence concluded that he did not "willfully" mislead Parliament about the state spending – even though he was repeatedly briefed about the spending and failed to disclose it to Parliament.
This week's scathing report about the taxpayer-funded upgrade at Mr. Zuma's village home, which called the upgrade a "license to loot" and described his home as a "Rolls Royce" in a sea of rural poverty, is just the latest controversy to hit the ANC and its leader in the election campaign.
Only two weeks ago, South Africa was hit by electricity blackouts, leaving much of the country in the dark for hours, because of poor planning on state power projects. The country has also been hit by a devastating strike in its important platinum sector, and it continues to be plagued by high unemployment and extreme inequality.
At public meetings, Mr. Zuma has been openly booed and jeered, and impoverished township dwellers have hurled stones at ANC leaders during their door-to-door election campaigning, despite the presence of gun-toting ANC bodyguards.
None of these problems will prevent the ANC from rolling to election victory again this year. But they are signs of the slow and gradual erosion of power that is already under way, and they are hints of the rising trouble that will face the ANC in future elections.
A key barometer will be Gauteng province, the economic heartland of the country, home to Johannesburg, Pretoria, Soweto and other key cities. Opinion polls suggest that the ANC has fallen below the crucial 50 per cent level in Gauteng. One poll by survey company Ipsos found the ANC at less than 46 per cent in the province, and internal ANC polls have reportedly warned of similar numbers.
If the ANC is unable to improve on those numbers on election day, it could be forced to negotiate with an opposition party to form a governing coalition in Gauteng province – a humiliating setback for the party. It has already lost control of Cape Town and the surrounding Western Cape province, now controlled by the opposition Democratic Alliance (DA).
Nationally, the ANC continues to be shielded by the weakness of the major opposition parties. The DA is the biggest opposition party, but it is widely seen as a white-led organization. Its attempts to find a black presidential candidate have failed disastrously. In January, the DA unveiled a deal with businesswoman and anti-apartheid fighter Mamphela Ramphele to make her the face of the party in the election campaign. But just a few days later, the deal fell apart and Ms. Ramphele returned to her own political party as the DA criticized her for violating their agreement.
Another opposition party, COPE, seemed to emerge as the voice of the black middle class in the 2009 election, but it later collapsed in internal feuds and is unlikely to be a factor in the May election.
The strongest new party, the Economic Freedom Fighters party, is headed by the populist firebrand Julius Malema, who headed the ANC's youth wing until he split with Mr. Zuma. The EFF has attracted large crowds to its election rallies, and analysts believe it could win 5 or 10 per cent of the vote in the May election.
But the EFF is hampered by its extreme left-wing policies of large-scale nationalization and confiscation of resources – and it is also hurt by Mr. Malema's image as a clownish and corrupt buffoon. He is currently facing charges of fraud and tax evasion.