Cyril Ramaphosa
African National Congress leader and South Africa’s President Cyril Ramaphosa at an election rally in Ellis Park stadium, Johannesburg, on Sunday. Image Credit: AFP

Chantelle, South Africa: Before the general elections on Wednesday in South Africa, Josiah Tsheko found himself in a category now familiar to members of the nation’s growing black middle class: The undecided voter.

He liked the President, Cyril Ramaphosa, a former business tycoon and the leader of the long-governing African National Congress (ANC) party. But as Tsheko oversaw workers who were adding an extension to his ranch-style house on a recent morning, he said he had deep misgivings about the party itself.

“My friends like Cyril — I also do,” said Tsheko, 42, a human resources manager at a mining company. “Remember, the guy knows business. The problem is the guy is surrounded by the party mafia.”

Will ANC win the elections?

The ANC, the party that was led by Nelson Mandela and helped free black South Africans, is all but certain to garner the most votes nationally in the election, ensuring that Ramaphosa will win a five-year term as South Africa’s president.

But whether enough black middle-class voters return to the ANC will help determine the party’s margin of victory — and, more important, whether Ramaphosa gets the strong mandate to carry out his push against corruption and efforts to clean up his own party. Nearly as significant, the political fate of Gauteng — the nation’s richest province, home to Johannesburg and Pretoria as well as the biggest concentration of black middle-class voters — rests on how they will cast their ballots.

Supporters of the Economic Freedom Fighters
Supporters of the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) party, attend their election rally at Orlando Stadium in Soweto, South Africa, Sunday, May 5, 2019. Image Credit: AP

Why will the loss of Gauteng be a big blow to ANC?

The loss of Gauteng would be a big blow to the ANC, which lost control over the nation’s second richest province, the Western Cape, a decade ago. It would increasingly transform the ANC into a party dependent on poor urban and rural voters — the people over whom it holds sway through social benefits and patronage.

“It’s the ANC’s last chance to hold the middle class and certainly in Gauteng,” said David Everatt, head of the Wits School of Governance at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg.

What can Ramaphosa do?

It is up to Ramaphosa to persuade black middle-class voters that he can change the ANC, “which is now identified with corruption and maladministration”, said Everatt, who has also done polling for the party in the province. In local elections in 2016, Tsheko, enraged by the ANC’s endemic corruption, voted for the first time against the ANC. His vote helped sink the party in Chantelle, a suburb of Pretoria where he and his neighbours complain on a WhatsApp message group about faulty street lamps and potholes.

With heavy losses in Chantelle and other black middle-class neighbourhoods that year, the ANC lost its control of the city council in Pretoria, the nation’s capital. The party’s loss of two other major cities — including Johannesburg, the commercial capital — came to symbolise the alienation of black urban professionals, once part of the ANC’s core support.

Is corruption a key issue?

Ramaphosa, an anti-apartheid labour leader who made a fortune in private business before returning to active politics in 2012, was narrowly elected the ANC’s leader in late 2017. Two months later, he became South Africa’s president after forcing out his predecessor, the scandal-tainted Jacob Zuma.

Zuma, whose base was among the poor, especially in rural areas, had a tense relationship with black middle-class voters. He dismissed them as “clever blacks” who, he and his allies said, failed to show gratitude for the ANC-led policies on government employment and affirmative action that helped fuel black upward mobility. Reacting against the corruption that flourished during the Zuma years, many black middle-class voters began abandoning the party.

Supporters of the ruling African National Congress
Supporters of the ruling African National Congress (ANC) attend their final election rally at Ellis Park stadium in Johannesburg, South Africa Sunday, May 5, 2019. Image Credit: AP

Why do people think South Africa is still an unequal society?

Perhaps nowhere in today’s South Africa is the country’s inequality on more dramatic display than in the neighbouring Johannesburg suburbs of Sandton and Alexandra.

With its gleaming high-rises and lush estates, Sandton is known as Africa’s richest square mile. Alexandra, a onetime home to Nelson Mandela, is a squalid, cramped and crime-infested black township. Many of its residents stream into Sandton every day on a bridge over a highway to work in upscale shops or homes.

Angry protests flared in Alexandra last month, stoked in part by campaigning for the national election but mostly by the frustration that South Africa should look far different than the country of haves and have-nots that it has become. Many voters believe the ruling African National Congress has lost its way since Mandela won the first post-apartheid presidential election in 1994, and that belief threatens the ANC’s absolute majority grip on power.

How have South African communities changed?

The transformation of South Africa and its voter preferences was most evident in the 2016 local elections in communities like Chantelle, an all-white community under apartheid that is now more than 90 per cent black. The ANC won only 40 per cent of the votes in the district that includes Chantelle — down from 69 per cent in the previous local election in 2011.

Sybil Louw, who is 66 and recently retired after working as a nurse for 47 years, stopped registering to vote in 2014. A lifelong supporter of the ANC until then, she had become disgusted by what she saw as the party’s culture of prioritising personal gains for members and their allies. “They’re thieves, they steal to the core — that’s our tax money,” Louw said, sitting on her front porch, facing a large, well-kept lawn in Chantelle.

“So I haven’t registered to vote,” she said, laughing. “What do I get out of it?”

What are the key issues in South Africa’s election?


• Land is a highly emotive issue in South Africa, where the bulk of productive agricultural land has remained in white hands since the end of apartheid in 1994. A farm industry group and government argue over exactly how much land is in black hands. That land was forcibly taken from black people during the colonial and apartheid eras.

• Despite ploughing money into state-backed land transfer initiatives, the ANC government failed to meet its target of transferring 30 percent of commercial farmland to black hands by 2014, which fuelled unrest by communities living in squalid shanty towns demanding better housing and services.

• Under pressure from the far-left Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) party and more radical elements in the ANC, Ramaphosa last year launched a process to change the constitution to make explicit provision for land expropriation without compensation. He has moved to allay investor fears that any constitutional changes will result in Zimbabwe-style land grabs or hurt food output. But Ramaphosa, if he is returned to power, would need to strike a balance between policies that help quell simmering discontent among the black majority without derailing a struggling economy.


• Years of corruption scandals implicating senior party officials and government ministers have sullied the ANC’s reputation and could prove costly on May 8 as opposition parties target malfeasance as a key pillar of their election campaigns.

• A state corruption inquiry has heard evidence that associates of former president Zuma siphoned off huge sums from state tenders. Zuma has consistently denied wrongdoing. But the rot is not confined to the upper echelons of power, having seeped through to provincial and municipal authorities.


• South Africa has some of the worst unemployment levels among major emerging market economies, trapping millions of people in poverty and spurring violent protests.

• Around 27 per cent of South Africans were unemployed in the fourth quarter last year, according to a narrow definition of unemployment. Among young black South Africans the jobless rate is one in two.

• The three main political parties have all put job creation at the heart of their campaigns. Ramaphosa called a jobs summit last year, where he vowed to create 275,000 more jobs a year. That is an ambitious target. A number of companies in the mining sector alone, which is one of the biggest employers in the economy, have announced thousands of job cuts in the past year.


• South Africa’s economic growth has slowed sharply in recent years, stretching public finances and sparking fierce disagreements over the direction of economic policy.

• In the decade before the global financial crisis, gross domestic product (GDP) growth averaged around 4 percent. But in the past decade it slowed to below 2 percent, which is insufficient to make a meaningful dent in poverty and is among the lowest among emerging markets.

• Policy uncertainty during Zuma’s tenure and a worsening fiscal picture led to credit rating downgrades to “junk” status and deterred much-needed investment by foreign and local companies.


• Trust in state electricity firm Eskom among ordinary South Africans and investors is low as it struggles to keep the lights on and grapples with a severe financial crisis.

• The past year has seen regular bouts of “load-shedding,” a local term for scheduled power cuts, for the first time since 2015 as Eskom has faced recurring problems at its creaking fleet of coal-fired power stations.

• Eskom has high debt levels, with its 420 billion rand debt mountain equal to more than 8 percent of the country’s GDP.

• Ramaphosa has made reforming Eskom a priority, overseeing the appointment of a new board of directors, pledging restructuring and promising a 23 billion rand a year bailout over the next three years.

• But energy experts say that isn’t enough to make Eskom financially sustainable in the long term. The highest levels of government are discussing additional financial support measures for Eskom.

- Reuters