On May 8th, the crucial South Africa presidential election will resemble several others held in the post-apartheid era.
Millions of voters, many wearing the garish t-shirts of their favourite candidates, will gather in the early hours at polling stations in townships and rural areas, queuing patiently to cast their vote.
Yet observers will note that the once excitable crowds of young voters are slowly but surely giving way to the middle aged and elderly.
Exactly 25 years after the dawn of democracy, more than half of 18 to 30 year olds are not registered to vote in the election.
For the generation that led South Africa to freedom and the ballot box at great cost, the idea that 10 million young citizens will voluntarily stay away from the polls provokes incredulity.
But the disenchantment of the ‘Born Free’ generation reflects widespread youth apathy with the tarnished brand of the ANC. The once celebrated party’s unbroken rule since the dawn of freedom has gradually given way to unemployment, corruption, weak economic growth and mediocre service delivery.
For incumbent President Cyril Ramaphosa, who has pledged to stop the rot since replacing the discredited Jacob Zuma in a bitterly divisive contest in February 2018, the election represents a major test of whether he can re-energise a flagging party and continue to usher the country down the path of much-needed economic reform.
While another ANC victory is all but assured given the party’s enduring association with the liberation struggle, the margin of victory will provide clues as to whether Ramaphosa can face down internal factions opposed to his tentative anti-corruption moves and unite the party’s pro-business and populist wings behind a reform programme.
For foreign and local investors desperate for renewed signs of job creation and economic growth – official unemployment is over 27% while the IMF projects just 1.2% growth this year – a resounding victory for the president will allow him to stamp his authority for the next five years.
‘Within days of his appointment of the new administration, investors will have made decisions – if not in hours – as to what the outlook is for the next five years if not the next ten years for South Africa,” says Colin Coleman, CEO of Goldman Sachs for sub-Saharan Africa.
A mandate for reform
While the ANC’s vote share has eroded over time, Zuma’s 62.15% of the vote in the last presidential contest in 2014 offers a useful benchmark by which to measure success.
Anything less than a vote share in the mid-50s will count as a significant reverse for Ramaphosa, according to analysts, weakening his hold on the party and emboldening former Zuma allies and radical ANC cadres in their opposition to his programme.
Whether Ramaphosa can secure a strong mandate and land close to the 60% mark largely depends on warding off the challenge of a resurgent Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF), the leftist political party led by Julius Malema.
Long-pledged to radical land reform and dismantlement of ‘white minority capital’, the party is a direct competitor for the working class township and rural voters. These segments comprise the backbone of the ANC and feel betrayed by joblessness, weak service delivery and widespread political looting.
An improvement in the EFF’s vote share to over 10% could erode Ramaphosa’s authority and embolden radical voices in the ruling party.
In opening the door to the expropriation of farmland without compensation via an amendment to the constitution, Ramaphosa is implicitly acknowledging the challenge that the firebrands represent to his rule.
Indeed, EFF is likely to provide a sterner test than the flagging Democratic Alliance, the official opposition, which is unlikely to better its 2014 vote share of 22.13%.
Damaged by infighting and struggling to build its brand among black voters, some of the liberal party’s middle class voters may be attracted to a Ramaphosa-led ANC dedicated to economic revival.
But whether the President succeeds in winning over wavering supporters will largely depend on whether he can persuade voters that the long-neglected bread-and-butter issues of service delivery, job creation and responsible governance are finally being met by the ruling party.
In recent months, the president has pledged to bailout and restructure Eskom, the failing national power supplier behind rolling power cuts, fired the head of the underperforming tax authority, and sacked senior prosecutors following an inquiry into their fitness to hold office.
Investors are being actively wooed with a $100bn investment target.
If the President is to re-energise the country’s youth and get them excited about the possibilities of democracy, he needs a mandate to build on the modest beginning.