Democracy in South Africa
South Africa’s Most Important Elections Since Mandela

A week from today, South African voters will go to the polls for municipal elections. Normally, elections in South Africa aren’t a big deal for international observers because the ANC, the anti-apartheid party of Nelson Mandela, wins every major city except Cape Town. But this time could be different, and it’s a story worth following. Reuters:

South Africa’s ruling African National Congress (ANC) looks likely to lose major urban areas it has held since coming to power in 1994 at the end of apartheid, opinion polls ahead of next week’s local elections showed.

The economic hub of Johannesburg, the capital Pretoria and Nelson Mandela Bay on the east coast, could all fall to the main opposition party, Democratic Alliance, on Aug. 3, according to polls published last week by Ipsos.

The ANC’s support looked set to slip to 31 percent in Johannesburg from 59 percent in the 2011 local elections, and in Tshwane municipality, which includes the capital Pretoria, to 23 percent from 55 percent. In Nelson Mandela Bay, support was just 28 percent, from 52 percent last time, the Ipsos polls said.

If the pro-business DA wins any one of next week’s elections, and manages to capture one of these millions-strong urban areas, these could go down as the most important elections in South Africa since the end of apartheid. The DA could then plausibly expand its record of good governance and reliable service delivery beyond its current foothold in the Western Cape, and gain momentum going into the 2019 general elections. Such an outcome would signal the breakdown of the ANC’s viselike grip on power and mark the beginnings of genuine, robust multiparty competition in South Africa.

The poll numbers also provide strong evidence that the DA’s gambit to expand its base beyond whites and coloureds is working. The party’s former leader, Helen Zille—who despite her strong anti-apartheid record never really managed to shake the DA’s reputation as ‘the white party’—insisted that her successor be black so that the party could appeal to the 80 percent of South Africans who identify as black Africans. And the party picked the right man for the job: a young, dynamic leader and part-time pastor named Mmusi Maimane, who some have deemed the “Obama of Soweto,” has been ably leading the DA in parliament and expanding its appeal with black voters for the past two years. He’s an energetic force on the campaign trail too.

Food inflation is skyrocketing, economic growth is faltering, a far-left political party is siphoning votes from the ANC, and a long-running corruption scandal featuring President Jacob Zuma’s private home is taking its toll on South Africa’s once-great, now-atrophied ruling party. It’s a perfect storm for the DA to swoop in, beat the ANC in some major elections, and prove itself to black voters. Let’s see if South Africa’s main opposition is up to the task.

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