In Depth

South Africa elections 2019: who will win?

President Cyril Ramaphosa is standing against a record number of rival parties

South African voters head to the polls next week to vote in a presidential election that one opposition leader has called “the most important national general elections since 1994”.

On Wednesday 8 May, President Cyril Ramaphosa and his African National Congress (ANC) party will square off against almost 50 challengers for the favour of 26.75 million eligible voters, The Guardian reports, with the ANC expected to take another storming majority with up to 61% of the vote.

Although Ramaphosa’s victory is all but assured, the size of his majority will be pivotal in dictating the future of his presidency.

In his New Year message, opposition leader Mmusi Maimane of the centrist Democratic Alliance (DA) said that the forthcoming election was the most important since the end of apartheid in the country.

“No other time will each vote actually count to tilt the scales of political power than in this coming year,” he added.

But writing for South African newspaper The Citizen, Sydney Majoko claims that the choice for voters boils down to “bad or really bad” in what has been a “generally boring election season” with “no surprises or fireworks”.

Who is running?

The Electoral Commission of South Africa (IEC) announced on 20 March that a record number of 48 parties had registered candidates for the national parliamentary election.

However, barring a major upset, no party is set to come close to the polling numbers achieved by the centre-left ANC, which has been in power since Nelson Mandela ascended to the presidency at the end of apartheid in 1994. It has been re-elected five times - in 1999, 2004, 2009, 2012 and 2014 - each time with enormous margins.

However, this will be the first election contested by Ramaphosa, who took over as ANC leader after the resignation of Jacob Zuma last year over corruption charges, and he is “under pressure to reverse a slide in support for the ANC”, says EuroNews. The party has seen its share of the parliamentary vote drop from almost 70% in 2004 to 62% in 2014.

The second largest party is the DA, which won 22% of the vote in 2014. Despite attempts to distance itself from the image, The Guardian reports that the party is still widely seen as representing the interests of South Africa’s white minority.

Maimane, its leader, “appears to be in a difficult position”, the Daily Maverick says, and faces the prospect of becoming the “first leader of the party not to increase its support in an election”.

“If that does happen, he may not be the leader for much longer,” the news site says.

The other two parties of note currently in the National Assembly of South Africa are the nationalist conservative Inkatha Freedom Party (IFP) and the recently formed Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF), a hard-left populist party that advocates for elements of communism and pan-Africanism.

What are the main issues?

According to The Conversation, South Africa’s core problem at present is a “weak economy which is unable to grow at a rate which preserves people’s living standards” - a problem it ascribes to, among other things, the country’s “minority-ruled past”.

As a result, poverty has become a major issue in the country, with approximately half of the adult population living below the poverty line and 27% of working-age adults currently out of work. A recent study also showed that income inequality in South Africa is the highest of any nation in the world, while access to electricity, sanitation, housing and education is also wildly inconsistent across the country.

The ANC is running on a vague platform that News24 says includes “intervention in procurement processes at state-owned enterprises”, as well as “strengthening governance” and “rooting out corruption”. The DA has pledged to lower sales taxes and allow job seekers to opt out of the national minimum wage, which it says “limits job seekers from negotiating their own terms”, The South African says.

But the Conversation adds that many major issues in the country are being ignored in favour of sensationalist topics such as land reform. It posits that the growing black middle-class in the country “believe their abilities and qualifications are not recognised by the white business people and professionals who, in their view, remain in charge”, and this rivalry ensures mainstream support for extremely controversial populist policies such as the expropriation of white-owned land without compensation.

The ANC and EFF have both said they will increase expropriation and redistribution of land if elected, while other parties including the DA have expressed their strong opposition to the policy.

What will happen?

The ANC will almost certainly win by a large margin; that is one conclusion that all experts can agree on.

But the Guardian reports that the ANC’s image has been tarnished by “successive corruption scandals involving senior officials and a long-term failure to deliver basic services of sufficient quality to satisfy voters”. As a result, the paper says, a large margin of victory would give Ramaphosa a “big enough mandate to take on enemies within the ANC and push through major reforms needed to get economic growth going again”.

“If the ANC performs badly, he could be vulnerable as leader to an attempt to force him out, just as he ousted his predecessor Zuma,” the paper says.

Local news outlet Business Tech says that a decreased majority is quite possible, mainly because the country’s young people “just aren’t interested in voting”. Qmong citizens aged 18 to 29 - the biggest segment of the voting population - registrations are at their lowest in at least a decade.

According to EuroNews, opinion polling shows that young people are more attracted to the populist EFF, which may see the radical leftist party win an increased vote share.

Whatever the precise outcome, Forbes Africa paints a dismal view of the future post-vote. 

“Will this election deliver change?” the finance news site asks. “If it does, it will not do so significantly. Ramaphosa’s subjective weaknesses and limitations as a leader will show up much more strongly after the general election.”

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