South African opposition puts ANC majority in its sights

South Africa's opposition will be represented by more than 50 parties at Wednesday's election but the largest, the Democratic Alliance, hopes to unite a coalition capable of ousting the ruling ANC from power (PHILL MAGAKOE)
South Africa's opposition will be represented by more than 50 parties at Wednesday's election but the largest, the Democratic Alliance, hopes to unite a coalition capable of ousting the ruling ANC from power (PHILL MAGAKOE)

South Africa's opposition parties mounted an 11th-hour assault Sunday on the ruling ANC's 30-year-old grip on power, staging large-scale rallies three days before what promises to be an historic general election.

From the right, the Democratic Alliance (DA), was gathering in the town of Benoni outside Johannesburg to cheer on leader John Steenhuisen under a pair of national flags ahead of Wednesday's vote.

The party picked a smaller 20,000-seat stadium than the African National Congress had chosen for its huge Johannesburg rally the day before, but blue-clad supporters amply filled it, kept on their feet by DJs and bands playing amapiano and country songs.

"We don't offer empty promises, we show concrete facts and the facts are undeniable," Steenhuisen told the crowd, shielded from the winter sun by blue umbrellas

"Today our people are suffering under the unbearable burden of poverty, unemployment, crime. These disasters are not inevitable but were created by the ANC," he said.

"On Wednesday, the ANC will lose the outright majority is has abused for decades ... On Wednesday, we close the ANC chapter of our history."

Opinion polls suggest the DA will not overtake the ANC to become South Africa's biggest single party, but it hopes to unite with a coalition of smaller outfits to take power.

"I want change. It's too bad right now: no jobs, no nothing," said 66-year-old job-seeker Isaac Tembo, who has voted for the ANC every five years since the advent of democracy in 1994.

From the left, former president Jacob Zuma, not legally a candidate because of a conviction for contempt of court, is marshalling his uMkonto weSizwe (MK) party for a final push.

Zuma, who served as the ANC's fourth president between 2009 and 2018 but left office dogged by graft allegations, can not stand for election but may still take votes from his former party.

- Rescue mission? -

He was due to address a final weekend rally in one of the ANC's rural strongholds, in the eastern province of Mpumalanga.

President Cyril Ramaphosa is the fifth and latest in an unbroken line of African National Congress presidents dating back to Nelson Mandela's post-apartheid victory in 1994.

The party retains support among black South Africans grateful for the country's democracy and support for the welfare state and economic empowerment programmes.

But a younger generation, both black and white, which has grown up since the fall of apartheid is troubled by South Africa's power cuts, high crime rate and soaring joblessness.

Polls suggest the ANC could win fewer than 201 seats in the 400-member National Assembly for the first time and be unable to elect a president without support from other parties.

The DA, whose 48-year-old leader Steenhuisen is white, is hoping to capitalise on the discontent with a promise to "Rescue South Africa" through liberal economic reform and privatisations.

The ANC has played on fears that the DA would reverse 30 years of progress on economic and political equality and return power to a wealthy white elite.

But in Benoni, black DA supporters dismissed this fear.

"The DA will do better than ANC who lies," said 42-year-old mother-of-three Maria Choene.

The DA had bussed her more than 900 kilometres (560 miles)from her Aston Bay home with her eight-year-old daughter for the rally.

"I don't know why most of us are afraid of the DA. We should give them a chance first and vote them out if they fail, like the ANC," she argued.

The opposition is represented by 51 parties large and small on the ballot, and the DA leader would also face a post-election battle to assemble a coalition of MPs to put him in power.

"To drive this economy, the people need a stable government with economic policies that will grow the private sector," said  Graham Gersback, 68, a local DA ward councillor at the rally.

- Crime and power cuts -

The ANC sliding under 50 percent would put the party and South Africa in uncharted waters, but analysts and opinion polls agree this is the most likely outcome.

The ANC won freedom for black South Africans after decades of apartheid, helped build democracy and lifted millions out of poverty by creating a social welfare system.

But many in the country of 62 million are fed up with high and growing unemployment, currently at 32.9 percent, as well as rampant crime, power cuts and water shortages.

The economy grew a meagre 0.6 percent in 2023.

About 27 million people are registered to vote on May 29. They will elect the 400 members of the National Assembly, which then chooses the president.