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South Africa's Ruling Party Faces Stiff Challenge

  • Anita Powell

Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu casts his vote during local government elections in Milnerton, Cape Town, South Africa, Aug. 3, 2016.

Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu casts his vote during local government elections in Milnerton, Cape Town, South Africa, Aug. 3, 2016.

South Africans voted Wednesday in local polls whose results could resound nationally and shake the long-time ruling party.

The African National Congress has dominated national politics since Nelson Mandela ushered the party to power in 1994, but, under President Jacob Zuma, the ANC has been tarnished by corruption scandals. Unemployment and inequality have lingered under his leadership.

Opinion polls predict the opposition Democratic Alliance will make gains in metropolitan areas, including here in this economic hub. Allowing the opposition a greater chance to govern now could open the door for it to seize a larger share in 2019’s national poll.

The runup to the poll was marred with what appeared to be intraparty violence and killings among ANC activists and candidates.

Voting went smoothly Wednesday morning, electoral commission and police officials said, with more than 75,000 police patrolling at polling stations around the country.

A green fish in a blue pond

Mpho Mosimane has seen a lot of change in his 50 years. For the last eight years, he’s lived in the tony Johannesburg suburb of Westcliff, in a century-old home that was built when the apartheid regime defined this as a whites-only neighborhood.

Mosimane again finds himself as an emblem of South Africa’s political change.

"It’s an uphill battle," he said cheerfully as he shook hands and greeted voters of all colors under a green ANC tent set up outside a polling station. Just meters away, a larger group thronged the DA’s blue tent.

Mosimane is the local ANC candidate, in an area that is part of a national shift away from the party. His neighborhood of historic homes, pools, parks and tennis courts – which is becoming increasingly diverse – in recent years has switched to the DA, which has campaigned on an anti-corruption platform and touted its successful leadership in the Western Cape region.

For decades, he says, South Africans have voted by identity: Black voters have historically chosen the ANC, and the opposition has counted on white support. But this year’s election, Mosimane says, presents a chance for voters to stop and think about their choices – on all sides.

"In fact, during the campaign, I wanted to engage with the DA candidate, and I said to [her], ‘Can we engage?'" he said. "And she said, 'No, I’m winning, l don’t need to have a debate.' And I said, 'Let’s have a public debate. Because people need to know why they’re voting for us.' Not just because historically they’ve always voted that way. Because local government is the coal face [the source] of services.

"People are talking about national issues. … But the water still has to be running, the pavements still have to work. And that’s why people need to vote for us, here."

Undecided vs. decided

It’s a small shift, but an important one: Slowly but surely, South Africa is seeing the emergence of the undecided voter.

Tasneem Hoosen is one such voter. The 35-year-old outlined her thought process in deciding between the ANC and the DA. Even though she chose the ANC again, reluctantly, she says she wants change.

"I didn’t know who to vote for because there are two major parties. The one is currently very corrupt, and the other one just doesn’t represent my interests," Hoosen said. "I voted for the one that I voted for previously, in the past, in the hopes that it would change its ways in the future."

Diehards still exist, like voter Jonathan Maponya. He remembers, as a young man, being repeatedly arrested for the apartheid-era crime of being black in the wrong neighborhood. Under the racist laws of the time, he would not have been able to even walk in this ward without a permit.

And so, he says, the ANC has earned his lifetime loyalty – and then some.

"I'm old, 74 years," he said. "But I go to die in the ANC. I won’t change. Even if I’m sleeping, somebody says, what party do you want? I can’t say another party. I’m going to say ANC!"

South Africa will find out how the nation feels as votes are counted in the coming days. Results are expected within a week.