For months, opinion polls had shown lagging public confidence in the ANC. The drop is blamed in part on the expenditure of millions of tax dollars on lavish improvements on the presidential home at Nkandla. Public opinion also reflected disapproval of the violent police response to striking miners in Marikana two years ago.
But a recent poll by the research company IPSOS showed that 65% of voters still intend to vote for the ANC on May 7th – at least on the national level.
Jakkie Cilliers, the director of the Institute for Security Studies in Pretoria, says South Africans still vote according to party loyalty rather than policy. Many black South Africans reward the ANC for ending white rule 20 years ago. And he said while many urban supporters are critical of corruption scandals, rural voters overwhelmingly credit the party for improving their lives.
"The ANC is more than 100 years old, with an unparalleled brand, " said Cilliers. "There are two stories about South Africa. One is the story of Nkandla, corruption, and so on. The other is on what the ANC has been able to deliver: access to electricity, social grants, and infrastructure in rural areas.... I’ve just spent two days driving from East London in the Eastern Cape to Durban and you can see the extent of the impact that the ANC has made in rural areas. So it is important to recognize that in urban areas [the ANC] is struggling; in rural areas, it dominates political life and has done quite well for ordinary Africans.
Others attribute the successful patronage systems built by parties with origins as liberation movements.
Holding the purse strings
Hussein Solomon is a professor of political studies at the University of the Free State in Bloemfontein, South Africa.
"Don’t forget it took the Congress Party in India 50 years to lose elections, saying we delivered you from the British Raj [empire]," he explained. "There’s still a loyalty to the ANC. In recent polling, one reason to vote [for the ANC] was that they liberated them from apartheid. The other is that ANC has been good at conflating government and party. They have been handing out food parcels, putting up buildings, putting on concerts for youth with food hampers [parcels] …. and claiming this is from the ANC.
"The voters have a short memory, he continued. "[The ANC is telling them] ‘don’t worry about our failures. For the next two hours you will have food and music.’ "
The elections may also help boost the main opposition, the Democratic Alliance. Some polls of registered voters say the party could increase its share of the vote from roughly 17 percent to 23 percent.
Cilliers said there are some factors working in the DA’s favor.
Alternatives to ANC
For example, urban dissatisfaction may lead some voters to split their vote for the provincial and national leadership.
Helping the DA in a close race are parties to the left of the ANC, like the Economic Freedom Fighters, headed by the charismatic former leader of the ANC Youth League, Julius Malema. His party could take votes away from the ANC, as could a campaign by some former party supporters. They are asking voters to protest against the ANC by choosing an alternative party or by casting a “no” vote or blank ballot.
The Democratic Alliance already controls one of the country’s nine provinces, the Western Cape, and some, including analyst Hussein Solomon -- say it could win the richest, Gauteng, or at least the commercial capital there, Johannesburg.
"Gauteng Province is going to be a very close race, according to all the recent polls between the ANC and the DA," he said. "And to complicate matters further, the ANC leadership of Gauteng, [provincial chairperson for the party] Paul Mashatile, was opposed to Zuma’s candidacy for the presidency of the ANC and campaigned against him. So there’s all kinds of tensions inside the ANC there."
"They might well lose to the DA," he continued, " if we factor in the Economic Freedom Fighters meaning unemployed youth will vote against the ANC…. This reduction in the vote [could] result in the DA capturing Gautang [as well as the Western Cape] and have two of the richest provinces."
Pressure for reform
Some analysts say if the ANC does poll much below its current 66% of voters at the national level, the party could vote to replace President Zuma.
Others do not think that’s likely, but they think there will be pressure on the ANC to reform. That could mean moving to the left on issues such as land reform or nationalization of parts of the economy.
Analyst Jakkie Cilliers said it could also mean a split within the ANC. He said many in NUMSA, the National Union of Mine Workers of South Africa, want to form a separate labor party that would appeal to urban workers. That would allow the bulk of the ANC to stay in the center, a position that Cilliers says would be enhanced if Zuma appoints as deputy president of the country – as many expect – prominent businessman and former trade unionist Cyril Ramaphosa. He’s now the deputy president of the party, and was instrumental in creating the national development plan that will guide the country for the next 16 years.
"Many of us hope he will, when appointed, be given sufficient autonomy and power within the Zuma administration to focus on policies going forward on the implementation of the national development plan," he said. "If that happens, and the ANC may be in an easier position to do that given it has lost some of the constraining influence by NUMSA and others on the left, it may be good news for South Africa going forward – [there would be a] slightly smaller, more streamlined cabinet, more focused on service delivery."
Cilliers does not think this election is a turning point – it’s hard to beat the ANC brand. But future polls – including municipal elections in 2016 – will be another opportunity for opposition parties to expand their influence.
If that’s the case, he said, the question is whether the ANC will continue to accept the wins and losses that come with a democracy – or whether party leaders believe they’ve earned the right to rule at any cost.