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South Africans vote key municipal elections

Sertan Sanderson (with Reuters, AP, AFP)August 3, 2016

Polls have closed in hotly contested South African municipal elections that could challenge ANC dominance. The elections are regarded as a key barometer on the nation's mood ahead of the 2019 general elections.

South Africa elections
Image: picture-alliance/dpa/Nic Bothma

South Africans cast their votes in local elections that are expected to present a tough challenge for a political party that's dominated since the end of apartheid.

Opinion polls suggest that the ruling African National Congress (ANC) could lose in some major cities for the first time since it came to power with the end of apartheid rule 22 years ago. South Africa's economic hub of Johannesburg, the capital Pretoria and the coastal town of Port Elizabeth in the Eastern Cape Province (also known as Nelson Mandela Bay) are all predicted to be highly contested battlegrounds in the polls.

The country's largest opposition party, the Democratic Alliance (DA), has been gaining ground in many areas due to disappointment in President Jacob Zuma's leadership. The radical leftwing Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) under the leadership of one of Zuma's former close allies, Julius Malema, is also expected to challenge the ANC's absolute majority held in many parts of the country.

A portion of voters say they have turned on Zuma out of frustration, as, among other things, he has been accused of about 800 counts of corruption - including the scandal surrounding the spending of public funds on lavish upgrades to his Nkandla family homestead. Others are disappointed in zero growth of the economy, while more than a quarter of South Africans remain unemployed, with the national currency, the Rand, likely to be downgraded to junk status by the end of the year.

Jacob Zuma
Many voters in South Africa feel loyalty for the ANC but not for President Jacob Zuma, who has been accused of paying for upgrades to his private homestead from state coffersImage: Getty Images/AFP/R. Jantilal

More than 26 million eligible voters are registered to take part in the local elections.

End of the honeymoon phase for the ANC

Millions of voters still feel a strong sense of loyalty to the ANC, which after it had been banned as a liberation movement for decades, reinvented itself in the early 1990s as the leading party for black South Africans under anti-apartheid icon Nelson Mandela's leadership.

More than 20 years since the end of apartheid, South Africa continues to deal with issues it inherited from the previous regime. Racial tensions keep simmering and flaring up episodically, with many previously disadvantaged black voters insisting on restitution for decades of oppression via a land reform deal that would see the white minority forfeit much of their land to the black majority.

After years of corruption under ANC leadership, especially since Nelson Mandela gave up the presidency in 1999, a growing number of people have started looking at other parties, as basic service delivery has slowed down to a halt in certain areas.

Helen Zille
The DA's share of the vote doubled under Helen Zille's leadership, but faced with accusations of leading a "whites only" party, Zille made way for Maimane to take overImage: picture alliance/AP Images

Addressing basic needs such as adequate housing, water and electricity supply still remain key concerns for the majority of people in Africa's most developed nation, as they take to the polling stations.

A key moment for the Democratic Alliance

Under the leadership of Helen Zille, the DA continuously managed to expand its sphere of influence, keeping a majority for the Western Cape province since 2009 and occupying the mayor's seat in Cape Town since 2006.

With a new leader at the helm of the DA, Mmusi Maimane, the party hopes to attract more black votes, while fighting against a reputation of being a not fully inclusive and sometimes elitist movement that primarily serves the interests of white middle-class South Africans. However, as both upward and downward social mobility changes across all races in the country so do views on parties like the DA.

"The Democratic Alliance is on the cusp of achieving something incredible and historic," Mmusi Maimane said on the eve of voting. "The ANC has drifted from our original democratic project. They are venal, corrupt and flashy."

The DA also faces stark opposition by the EFF, which is driven by a far more aggressive policy of black empowerment than any of the other major parties. Its firebrand leader, a former head of the ANC Youth League (ANCYL) and Jacob Zuma's erstwhile protégé, Julius Malema, advocates land reform following the model practiced in Zimbabwe, where thousands of white farmers have been driven from their lands into poverty. In stark contrast to other major parties, Malema's EFF manages to attract a high proportion of young voters, raising questions about South Africa's future direction.

Mmusi Maimane
Some have compared South Africa's young and charismatic opposition leader Mmusi Maimane to US President ObamaImage: imago/Gallo Images

Meanwhile, the ANC is highly likely to still draw support in many rural areas, particularly in the Eastern Cape, KwaZulu-Natal, Limpopo and Orange Free State provinces, with older black South Africans set to prove their loyalty to the party despite its problems.

Violence in Pretoria
Violence in the run-up to the elections saw 12 people killed across South Africa; Zuma has asked for a peaceful electionImage: picture-alliance/Zuma Press/Xinhua

Voting against the president on a local level

The run-up to the election has seen some deadly fighting on streets across the country, resulting in at least 12 deaths ahead of the vote. Most of the violence occurred in KwaZulu-Natal province as well as in the capital, Pretoria. President Zuma's office has urged voters to take part in peaceful municipal elections.

People have, however, vowed to retaliate in certain parts of the country if the ANC wins a majority, also accusing the party of cronyism in a shake-up of mayoral candidates, particularly in Pretoria. The ANC meanwhile believes that it will keep control of all major municipalities it currently holds. An independent opinion poll by Ipsos agreed that the ANC is likely to stay in place in Pretoria and Johannesburg despite growing opposition; however, it did predict that it would lose Port Elizabeth.

Julius Malema
Following a fall-out between Julius Malema and President Zuma, Malema started his own party, which espouses Marxist ideas and supports calls for land redistributionImage: picture-alliance/dpa/C. Tukiri

Even if the election only goes to confirm the status quo for the ANC, many are already questioning whether the ANC can survive in the long run under Zuma's leadership, which will come to an end in 2019 under a constitutional two-term limit.

South African journalist talks to DW