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Where South Africa's crunch election will be won and lost

S'thembile Cele, Bloomberg News on

Published in News & Features

The 56,000-seat Moses Mabhida Stadium in the South African port city of Durban was jammed for the unveiling of the ruling African National Congress’s election manifesto launch.

“We are supported by millions and millions of people,” President Cyril Ramaphosa told the cheering crowd in February, scoffing at the notion that his party was a spent political force after three decades in power. “The ANC remains the party of choice.”

In the weeks that followed, the arena built to host the football World Cup in 2010 was full again. But it was the ANC’s rivals, the Inkatha Freedom Party and the Economic Freedom Fighters, that packed it to capacity.

As the country heads into its tightest election since apartheid ended in 1994, the ANC is facing competition like never before. A series of opinion polls show the party risks losing its parliamentary majority and control of several provinces on Wednesday, a backlash against slipshod government services and rampant poverty, unemployment and crime.

The three provinces that are home to South Africa’s biggest cities have different political dynamics and will be the key determinants of the biggest winners and losers this week.

The eastern KwaZulu-Natal province, which includes Durban, is home to a fifth of registered voters and has a history of febrile politics. This month, 80 of the ruling party’s top leaders went door-to-door in the region’s townships to drum up support. They fielded a litany of complaints about a lack of jobs and ineffective municipal councilors.


“You shouldn’t find me sitting here in my home in the middle of the day during work hours, but I am because I don’t have a job,” Thuli Khawula, 39, told ANC Chairman Gwede Mantashe, who visited her home in Sitholinhlanhla, about 170 kilometers (106 miles) north of Durban. “Those are some of the things which make me doubt whether or not I should still be voting for the ANC.”

The ANC wrested control of KwaZulu-Natal from the Inkatha Freedom Party, or IFP, in 2004 and garnered 54% of the vote there in 2019, but has lost a number of recent municipal by-elections to its resurgent rival.

A new party headed by former President Jacob Zuma, meanwhile, has also been pulling the crowds. The charismatic 82-year-old led South Africa for almost nine scandal-marred years before he was ousted in 2018 and broke from the ANC in December. He hails from KwaZulu-Natal and remains popular among his fellow Zulu speakers.

A poll released this month by MarkData and commissioned by broadcaster eNCA, showed Zuma’s uMkhonto weSizwe Party, or MKP, winning 46.4% support in the province, the IFP 14.5% and the ANC just 11.1%. A series of other surveys also show the ANC losing ground, although some analysts have questioned their methodology.


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