Home News South Africans vote, many hoping for change as dramatic as Mandela’s rise

South Africans vote, many hoping for change as dramatic as Mandela’s rise

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An atmosphere of tension, excitement and uncertainty gripped South Africa on Wednesday as millions of people turned out for an election that could end the African National Congress’s monopoly on power, the party that has ruled since it led the overthrow of apartheid 30 years ago.

Party volunteers worked furiously to preserve their majority, ferrying voters to polling stations, extolling the virtues of the party through truck-mounted loudspeakers and handing out its bright yellow T-shirts. Top party officials joined these foot soldiers in chanting slogans that seemed to call them to battle.

Pollsters widely predict the party will win a majority but receive less than 50% of the vote for the first time. If that happens, the party will be forced to form an alliance with one or more other parties to form a government and remain in power.

Voters are electing the National Assembly to decide whether President Cyril Ramaphosa will succeed him or be ousted. They will also elect provincial lawmakers. Results are expected to be announced by the end of the week.

With 51 political parties challenging the African National Congress (ANC) in national elections, voters are faced with a multitude of choices, heightening the suspense for individual voters and the country.

“Can you believe it, I still don’t know who to vote for?” said Kedibone Makhubedu, 47, as she queued outside a community centre in Soweto township.

Ms Makhubedu, who works for an insurance company, said she had always voted for the ANC but was concerned about the economic situation and her 17-year-old daughter’s livelihood prospects.

“This is the first time I’ve ever been so conflicted,” she said.

At tens of thousands of polling stations across the country, colorful party flags fluttered in the wind, and party volunteers sang hymns from the anti-apartheid struggle and performed the familiar “Toi Toi” dance.

Opposition supporters hope the vote will mark a turning point for South Africa, as significant as the one when Nelson Mandela led the African National Congress to the presidency after the country’s first democratic elections in 1994.

“Today, I feel the same excitement as I did in 1994,” said Beki Zulu, who voted Wednesday for the first time since the first election. He said he was inspired this year by former South African president and African National Congress leader Jacob Zuma, who now leads a new breakaway party, Spear of the People.

This democratic ritual takes place in a very different country than when it was first implemented, but many of the same anxieties remain: unemployment, housing shortages, poor educational opportunities.

Voters emerged from polling stations with ink on their hands, demanding change – even those who clung to their ANC roots.

For the first time, South Africans had the option to vote for independent candidates who did not run as part of a party, and had to fill out three long ballot papers instead of two. The new system led to delays at many polling stations and long, winding queues for voters.

Jenneth Makhathini stood on a tarmac road in the village of Siweni in eastern KwaZulu-Natal province, waiting for the polling station to open, surrounded by electric wires and concrete houses – none of which existed when she first queued to vote three decades ago. Back then, the houses were made of mud, the roads were gravel and the light came from candles.

Although she embraces modernisation, she reluctantly voted for the ANC this year because she was disillusioned by how hard it was for young people to find jobs, how low wages were and how overwhelmed public hospitals were.

“I’m doing it, but now there’s less hope,” Makatini, a 54-year-old educator, said of voting for the ruling party.

But even though the party’s support has slipped amid worsening living conditions and rising corruption, voters are not letting it go easily.

South Africans said in previous election cycles they mostly thought the ANC would retain its outright majority. But voters said the party, which won nearly 58% in the last election in 2019, is in the low 40s in this year’s polls, raising hopes that could change this time around.

The weak poll numbers also emboldened ANC officials, who during the campaign focused on attracting disillusioned supporters who had stopped voting. With turnout high at many polling stations, no one knew whether that was a good sign for the ruling party — indicating its supporters were turning out again — or for the many challengers hoping to attract new voters.

A former ANC liberation fighter has decided to run in this election after he last voted in 1994. But he is not representing his old party.

Isaac Modise, who was voting in a northern suburb of Johannesburg, said he was backing Zuma’s party. The 66-year-old Modise said it was his way of inspiring the ANC to progress.

“We want the ANC to return and become a people’s organisation,” he said.

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