Frustrated voters set to shake up South African politics | Africa | DW | 01.08.2016
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Frustrated voters set to shake up South African politics

With local elections taking place across the country on Wednesday, campaigning has been intense – both on the streets and online. For the ruling African National Congress party (ANC), it could be crunch time.

Nearly 26 million registered voters in all of South Africa's 278 municipalities will be electing representatives, including mayors, to local councils, which are responsible for crucial services including water, electricity and sanitation.

Currently, the majority of the country's municipalities are run by the ruling ANC party, which came to power in 1994 after a successful campaign against white dominance and Apartheid. Now polls suggest the party is losing significant support for the first time in over 20 years – meaning these elections are being viewed as a referendum on President Jacob Zuma ahead of presidential elections in 2019.

Surveys show the leading opposition Democratic Alliance party (DA), which already holds Cape Town, is ahead in other key cities including the capital Pretoria, the economic hub Johannesburg and the coastal city of Port Elizabeth.

Battling for votes

Campaigning in the run up to this week's vote has been described as some of the most vibrant since the dawn of democracy in 1994.

Zuma, who has spent the last few years embroiled in corruption scandals including having used public funds to pay for upgrades to his private home, has stressed the importance of continuing to improve quality of life for South Africans by providing decent housing, drinking water, electricity, public health services and education- key campaign issues for the vast masses of poor people living on the margins of society.

But opposition parties are also promising to improve basic services. With unemployment and inequality high, and many citizens growing increasingly disillusioned with their president, the DA is aiming to appeal to frustrated citizens with its campaign slogan "Vote for Change." Many DA voters have taken to Twitter to express their support, using the hashtag #ImVotingDA.

On social media at least, ANC supporters seemed less vocal. On the streets of Johannesburg, many citizens see the vote as a chance to vent their frustrations over politics in general.

"I'm going to vote, I need a change, I need a house RDP [reconstruction and development subsidy], and electricity also," security guard Deywizo Mazimulo said. "They promising us but we are still waiting. I think there is corruption because they are not giving us what we want."

For Mazwe Shezi, a 26 year old clerk, the lack of basic services are the biggest concern. "Scarcity of water, electricity – those problems are very very sad," he said. "Corruption is a big issue, but I don't even to think we have the power to change the corruption."

It's a problem which has put some citizens off voting completely. "There's too much corruption in this country and this government," said garage attendant supervisor Trevor Mazibuko. "All the political parties are the same, all crooks, they want the money only, they don't care about us."

DA supporters dressed in Blue

The DA is running under its first black leader Mmusi Maimane, who hopes to extend the party's appeal.

Controversial tactics

The DA is gaining support, but some of the party's tactics have caused controversy. Its charismatic leader Mmusi Maimane came under fire from critics for invoking the legacy of national hero Nelson Mandela in election speeches, referring to him as "Tata" meaning "father" in the Xhosa language.

"Wu Tata even warned us – he said the ANC would one day turn its back on the people of this country and Tata once said and I quote: 'if the ANC does to you what the apartheid government did to you, then do to the ANC what you did to the apartheid government,'" Maimane told supporters at a rally.

Zuma and the ANC, who see themselves as guardians of Mandela's post-Apartheid South Africa, countered this by also turning to history, recalling the DA's origins in predominantly white politics.

"[The DA is] the only one of all the opposition which has the people who oppressed us. They still sit in parliament today," Zuma said on the campaign trail. "No white party can run this country no matter how they cover up by getting a few black stooges. They remain the bosses. They remain a white party."

Racial tensions

Playing the race card in an attempt to appeal to black voters also caused trouble for radical leftist party the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF).

One of the party's local government candidates caused a storm with a Facebook post in which he called for white people to be hacked and killed. He was removed as a candidate by the Independent Electoral Commission (IEC) and party leader Julius Malema had to withdraw his party's support for the candidate.

EFF supporters in red holding up a vote EFF banner

The EFF is standing in its first municipal elections

When most South Africans first went to the polls in 1994 to cast their ballots they looked forward to a future that would be free of poverty, unemployment, corruption and racial divisions. But in the run-up to Wednesday's local elections, race has become one of the main campaign issues.

Zuma's invocation of race as a campaign tactic led to criticism that he had betrayed the vision of Mandela and other freedom leaders who sacrificed their lives for a non-racial and democratic society. Political analysts say the president's use of the race card will only further drive a wedge among the people and further entrench racial enclaves.

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