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Rocked by the pandemic, a shaky economy and July's insurrection, the ANC is struggling to win back support
The starting gun fired on 20 September for campaigning in the local elections with the Constitutional Court ruling that parties could reopen their candidate nominations ahead of voting day on 1 November.
This was seen as a boost to the ruling African National Congress which had failed to register many of its candidates in the expectation that the elections would be delayed. A delay would have suited the ANC.
Instead, it goes into local elections 'divided' according to ANC Chairman Gwede Mantashe. It is also disorganised and demoralised by the internal feuding between supporters of President Cyril Ramaphosa and ousted leader Jacob Zuma, who was sentenced to 18 months gaol for contempt of court.
Party workers at ANC headquarters are angry; some haven't been paid for months. Signs of a revival in the party's fortunes earlier this year when Ramaphosa scored a series of victories against his foes have ebbed (AC Vol 62 No 18, Ill fares the ANC). Worries about jobs and the stagnant economy as well as another wave of the pandemic are haunting South Africans.
Internal polling in the ANC and the centre-right Democratic Alliance show them both losing ground in the local elections. An ANC insider was quoted as saying the party is in as bad a position as it was during the last local elections in 2016 under Zuma's leadership.
Then, support for the ANC slumped to 53.9% and the DA rose to 26.9% and Julius Malema's Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) won 8.2%. The latest polls from the IPSOS agency in the country suggest ANC support has fallen furthere to 49% and the DA's to17.9%.
But support for the EFF, says IPSOS, is up to 14.5%. This could mean it's closing in on the DA's ranking as the country's main opposition party. That reflects a growing radicalisation of the electorate, at least in rhetorical terms, and could give the EFF a king-making role in several municipalities.
It might also mean that the EFF is benefitting from an outflow of Zuma supporters from the ANC espousing demands for faster distribution of land and more nationalisation of big companies. The EFF is also benefiting from fuller coffers allowing it buy adverts and election paraphernalia.
Even if it pushes its vote towards 20% in the local elections, the bigger question for the EFF is whether it can govern better than the ANC or DA. There are some important caveats. The IPSOS poll is based on a voter turnout of 70% on 1 November, that's about 15% higher than is usual for local elections.
And the EFF has a poor record of getting its voters to the polls. That could change this time, given its mysterious infusion of funds.
A good result in the local elections, in which it would bargain for positions and policies with the ANC, would boost the EFF on the national stage. But if it is too compromised by these liaisons with the ANC, it could quickly disappoint its supporters. There is still a danger that the EFF could implode, like the other failed parties which broke away from the ANC.
The only certain winners in these local elections look set to be the independent candidates and the smaller parties. Former leader of the DA, Mmusi Maimane, who has been sharply critical of his old party's tilt to the right, is predicting a hefty protest vote on 1 November boosting independents and new political movements, such as his own.
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