Is the Party That Ended Apartheid Losing Its Grip on South Africa?

The campaign to keep the African National Congress in power kicked off, unofficially, under a scorching January sun in a packed soccer stadium. Addressing the crowd was Cyril Ramaphosa, president of South Africa and the A.N.C., Africa’s oldest liberation movement, which was at the forefront in the battle against apartheid and has governed the country since the first fully democratic elections in 1994, when Nelson Mandela was elected president. Ramaphosa was at Mandela’s side in those years, serving as a chief negotiator to end apartheid and later as a top A.N.C. official. But the tone he struck at the kickoff event, which was also the A.N.C.’s annual birthday celebration, was one of anger and even, perhaps, political desperation.

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Speaking to thousands of loyalists, he took direct aim at what he wanted everyone to believe was the biggest threat to the country. “Anti-transformation forces,” he said, were “working very hard to undermine the gains of our freedom that we’ve made over three decades.” The A.N.C.’s opponents were “real snakes,” he went on, who were intent on sabotaging the party and taking the country back to the days of apartheid.

Ramaphosa had reason to worry. National elections are scheduled for May 29, and polls suggest that the A.N.C. may slip below 50 percent of the national vote for the first time. It would mark a low point in the steady erosion of the party’s popularity. During the days of the freedom struggle, fighting a clear enemy made it easy for a majority of South Africans — and many around the world — to rally around the party. The A.N.C. lived off that reputation. But as many South Africans continue to scrape by, voters have become disenchanted. After peaking at just under 70 percent of the vote in the third democratic election in 2004, the A.N.C.’s share was at 57.5 percent in 2019, the last time national elections were held. If the party loses its absolute majority this year, it most likely won’t be because voters have flocked to other parties but because its own disgruntled supporters have stayed home.

Ramaphosa’s event was designed to reawaken some of the excitement of the party’s earlier era. The stadium boomed with chants like “We thank you, A.N.C., today we are joyful!” and it was hard to miss the gestures of solidarity with other liberation movements. Hanging high above the crowd was a Cuban flag, a reminder that Cuba was an important ally in the A.N.C.’s armed struggle. Perhaps even more noteworthy was the Palestinian flag that also flew above the crowd. The A.N.C. has for many years likened the conditions in which Palestinians live to apartheid, and the Ramaphosa administration has been outspoken in its criticism of the war in Gaza, bringing charges of genocide against Israel to the International Court of Justice in December. Drawing on the A.N.C.’s aura as a party of freedom fighters, the Ramaphosa administration has positioned itself as uniquely capable of standing up against what it regards as Western-supported atrocities.

The spectators, who included officials from the liberation movements that now govern Zimbabwe, Namibia, Angola and Mozambique, soaked up the event as if it were a spiritual experience. But for many South Africans, A.N.C. nostalgia cannot mask the country’s many problems. South Africa today struggles to provide the most basic needs for its people. Electricity and water outages are frequent. Unemployment is at 42 percent, if you include those who have stopped looking for work. The murder rate is among the highest in the world (six and a half times higher than in the United States), and most South Africans live in poverty. Since the end of apartheid, inequality has actually grown. You can see it in the tin shacks near rows of office towers and upscale malls or in the affluent, largely white suburbs north of Johannesburg, where often the only Black people you see have traveled from far-flung townships to tend lawns or care for children.

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