By Mfuneko Toyana and Wendell Roelf
JOHANNESBURG/CAPE TOWN - The African National Congress faced its toughest electoral test on Wednesday as it sought to reverse a slide in support from voters frustrated by graft and racial inequalities a generation after it won power in South Africa’s first all-race poll.
South Africa is holding parliamentary and provincial elections amid frustration with a lack of progress 25 years after Nelson Mandela’s ANC swept to power at the end of white minority rule in 1994.
Queues built up at polling stations through the morning. Some polling stations around Johannesburg opened late or did not have voting materials.
Officials have said the results could be announced on Saturday.
The national election is the first under President Cyril Ramaphosa, who replaced scandal-plagued Jacob Zuma as head of state in February 2018 after four years as his deputy.
Opinion polls suggest the ANC will again win a majority of the 400 seats in the National Assembly, but analysts have predicted its margin of victory will fall.
“I’m a member of the ANC but I didn’t vote for them this time,” said construction worker Thabo Makhene, 32, in the commercial hub of Johannesburg.
“They need to catch a wake-up. The way they run the state, mishandling state funds, they’ve lost their morals.”
Pete Mokokosi, a 77-year-old pensioner, said he felt South Africans needed change, a better economy, education and jobs.
“The weather changes everyday, why can’t we?” he said as he waited to vote in Soweto.
In Cape Town, Anneke du Plessis, 43, who works at a media company, said her vote was to end corruption.
“We have to unite and stop this downward spiral. This is the most important vote since 1994,” she said.
Some voters said they would back the ruling party.
“They have made mistakes before but this time we have the right man,” said Alpheus Zihle, 69, a pensioner in Alexandra township in Johannesburg who said he would vote for the ANC.
ECONOMY IN FOCUS
The ANC’s biggest challengers are the main opposition party the Democratic Alliance (DA) and the leftist Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF).
The ANC won 62 percent of the vote in 2014’s parliamentary election, down from 2009 and far short of its best result, 69 percent in 2004 under President Thabo Mbeki.
Analysts have put that falling support down to corruption allegations against government officials, a slowing economy with one of the highest unemployment rates in the world, and demands from black citizens for more equitable distribution of land.
Ramaphosa - who became ANC leader after narrowly defeating a faction allied with Zuma - has promised to improve service delivery, create jobs and fight corruption. But his reforms have been held up by divisions and opposition within his own party.
“Reforms will remain at best one-step-forward, one-step-back and so potential growth will not rise,” Peter Attard Montalto, head of capital markets research at Intellidex, said in a note.
Africa’s most industrialized economy grew at an estimated 0.8 percent in 2018 after recovering from a recession in the first half of the year when a drought hit farming, although blackouts at power utility Eskom continue to drag on activity. Growth is forecast at 1.5 percent this year.
PARTY LEADERS VOTE
The center-right DA won 22 percent of the parliamentary vote in 2014. It appointed its first black leader Mmusi Maimane in 2015 and made headlines by leading coalition victories in local government elections in Pretoria and Johannesburg a year later.
But splits within the party could see its support wane.
“Fear says to us let’s stick with what we know, hope says let’s bring change,” Maimane said after casting his ballot in the township of Soweto in Johannesburg where he grew up.
The EFF’s leader Julius Malema, a fiery orator who formed the party in 2013 after he was expelled from the ANC, cast his vote in the northern city of Polokwane.
“If you need change, the EFF is the way to go,” said Malema, whose party won 6 percent of the vote in 2014, making it the third-largest presence in parliament.
It wants to nationalize mines and banks, and played a key role in holding Zuma to account for spending state money on non-security upgrades to his private residence.
Hundreds of people covered in blankets and coats in the chilly winter morning gathered outside a polling station in Soweto, where Ramaphosa cast his vote.
“We’ve made mistakes, but we are sorry about those mistakes, and we are saying our people should re-invest their confidence in us,” the president said. “We are going to correct the bad ways of the past,” he said.
ANC seen winning election but support sliding
By Mfuneko Toyana and Wendell Roelf