IT’S going on 31 years now since Nelson Mandela visited Glasgow. As a photographer back then working with the anti-apartheid movement, I was tasked with documenting the great man’s visit in October 1993 and therefore had the opportunity of meeting him during his stay in the city.

Like the thousands of others who attended the rally in George Square at which Mandela spoke, I’ll never forget the welcome he was given after being made a Freeman of the City. Barely a year later, of course, he would then go on to lead the African National Congress (ANC) in the 1994 multiracial general election that would elect him as South Africa’s first Black president.

Were Mandela alive today, what, I wonder, all these decades after sweeping to power, would he make of the upcoming election in his country in which the ANC is facing the prospect of losing their majority for the first time since the end of apartheid?

The National: ANC President Nelson Mandela casts his vote in the black township of Oshlange, near Durban, in the first all race elections..

In the three intervening decades that South Africa has been a democracy, it’s hard to recall any of the country’s past national elections that have felt quite so uncertain as this coming Wednesday’s ballot when nearly 30 million South Africans will head to the polls.

For six consecutive elections since 1994, the ANC have unequivocally dominated South African politics and won the majority of the national vote. Now, though, there are many South Africans who believe those days are numbered – among them journalist Redi Tlhabi.

“What is at stake now is a reckoning with the fact that the country we live in now is not the country that we hoped for 30 years ago, and it is a pivotal time to make a decision to break with the past and make bold decisions for change,” Tlhabi recently told Foreign Policy magazine, echoing the views of others in the country desirous of a political shift.

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That desire for change and the dwindling support for the ANC has its roots in the persistent poverty and inequality, high unemployment, corruption scandals, erratic power supply and high crime rates that have bedevilled South Africa now for many years.

If recent polls are anything to go by, then the ANC are on course to lose their majority for the first time since they came to power, and while they are still expected to be the largest party by a wide margin, should they fall short of a majority, they will have to negotiate a coalition or some form of deal with other parties.

In such a scenario, the ANC leader and South Africa’s current president, Cyril Ramaphosa would likely remain in office, unless he faces an internal challenge if the party is perceived to have performed badly. If that happens, the party could seek to oust him as its leader and nominate someone else for the National Assembly to elect as president.

It was Ramaphosa who back in the 1980s and early 90s was seen as the arch negotiator that oversaw a series of near-miraculous agreements to ensure the end of white rule.

Back then he was the architect of that historic settlement leading to that moment in April 1994, when millions of Black South Africans queued outside polling stations waiting to cast their first vote. This time next week, however, could well see Ramaphosa facing a very different kind of political deal-making.

Whether he stays or goes, the overwhelmingly likely scenario is that he or the next ANC leader will be president after the election. There would have to be a massive upset for another party to have a chance of winning the presidency outright.

But regardless of whether Ramaphosa or someone else is president, if the ANC lose their majority, they will need support from one or more other parties to keep governing.

The main opposition is the centre-right, pro-business Democratic Alliance (DA) – led by John Steenhuisen, who has suggested he would be willing to form a coalition with the ANC if his party doesn’t secure a majority. The DA secured a little less than 21% of the vote when elections were last held five years ago.

The DA claim the country is in “crisis” under the current government and wants the nation to move towards more privatisation. Yet, the party is known for its largely white leadership and has struggled to appeal to Black voters, who make up 80% of South Africa’s population.

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The party has also pledged to create two million new jobs and “halve the rate of violent crime”. And ahead of this week’s vote, the DA have also formed a multi-party charter of 10 opposition parties in their bid to “finally unseat” the ANC.

The third-largest party in parliament, meanwhile, is the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) – led by controversial former ANC member Julius Malema who has twice been charged with hate speech and for firing a gun at a public rally.

The EFF advocates “radical economic transformation” – the nationalisation of land and banks and other key parts of the economy.

The party, which campaign on an anti-ANC platform, claim that the ANC have still not put right the racial imbalances of apartheid, when the country was under white-minority rule, and have said they will redistribute land to the less well-off.

“We are not part of the 1994 elite pact. We are a completely new generation, with new demands,” the EFF manifesto begins.

Finally, in opposition to the ANC there is the uMkhonto weSizwe (MK) Party, led by former South African president Jacob Zuma (below) – who was ousted in 2018 after facing corruption allegations. He was later jailed for 15 months in 2021 for defying a court order.

The National: Former South African President Jacob Zuma arrives at Orlando stadium in the township of Soweto, Johannesburg, South Africa, for the launch of his newly formed uMkhonto weSizwe (MK) party's manifesto Saturday, May 18, 2024. Zuma, who has turned his

Zuma is leading the MK Party and remains the face of their campaign despite the fact that he has been banned from running in the election because of his previous criminal conviction.

Zuma has an axe to grind with his former ANC party. He also retains considerable popularity among fellow ethnic Zulus in his home province despite the allegations against him.

Like many of the parties in contention during the election, the MK has used populist rhetoric. In Zuma’s case, he has railed against LGBTQ+ rights – which are protected by law in South Africa – and suggested that the way to deal with teenage pregnancy would be by sending young mothers to continue their education on Robben Island – the former prison where he and Mandela were jailed under apartheid.

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With such an array of parties and their leaders against Ramaphosa, and should the ANC fail to get a majority, then South Africa’s proportional voting system would kick in and he would then need to form a coalition from this disparate range of political partners.

Ramaphosa’s options will be determined by how far the ANC’s vote share falls. If it ends up closer to 40% of the vote than 50%, they may need to join forces with the bigger opposition parties. That presents the ANC with a stark choice between pragmatism and populism.

While a series of previous polls have signalled that the ANC will lose their majority for the first time since taking power in 1994, these polls however have largely omitted undecided respondents, says Afrobarometer, a well-known pan-African survey group, that last week conducted its own telephone poll of 1800 South Africans.

“We do not know how undecided voters will ‘break’, so we cannot predict the final election outcome,” Afrobarometer said in commentary on the survey, which was commissioned by the Cape Town-based Institute for Justice and Reconciliation. “Many voters can still be swayed in the last week prior to the election.”

Just what exactly might sway such voters remains to be seen, but what is undoubtedly clear is that part of a younger generation of South Africans appear so disenchanted with democracy that only 40% have registered to vote.

One recent poll by the South African think tank the Human Sciences Research Council indicates the scale of such disenchantment with almost 60% of South Africans aged 18 to 24 rejecting the idea that democracy was always the best system of governance.

Meanwhile, nearly three-quarters of all South Africans also say they would ditch elections for a government that could provide security, jobs and houses.

“The idea that democracy is benefitting a small group of the elite has really entrenched itself in our society,” said Tessa Dooms, director at the Johannesburg-based think tank Rivonia Circle.

“Young people have been made to feel they have no stake in politics,” she added, speaking to the Financial Times.

Nicknamed the “born-free” generation, those under 35 – roughly a third of the electorate – have lived their entire lives under an ANC government increasingly engulfed by corruption scandals.

Though the ANC initially oversaw a rise in living standards and South Africans have on average become richer during the ANC’s three decades in power, incomes have been on a downward trend since 2011.

Crime is also a huge problem, with one person murdered in South Africa every 20 minutes in the last three months of 2023. In the same period, more than 130 people were raped every day. From crime to the economy, the country faces problems on so many levels and this is focusing the minds of voters.

Recent data from the World Bank suggest that the effectiveness of South Africa’s government has plummeted since 1996 with corruption and patronage having eroded the state. Twenty years of economic stagnation mean that half of South Africa’s young people are unemployed, the vast majority of them Black. This entrenched joblessness is the main reason South Africa is so unequal, say analysts.

Against this depressing backdrop, the ANC are ramping up efforts to sway voters in the final run-up to the elections. Despite their shortcomings, no party comes close to rivalling them when it comes to political heft. That said, some analysts are of the view that like many “liberation parties” across Africa, the ANC are being kept in office by older rural voters and those who lived through the privations of apartheid.

In other words, it’s not that the ANC’s recent track record is good, but rather that opposition to them has been so poor, say analysts like Ebrahim Fakir, an expert in South African politics.

“The ANC’s greatest gift is this gift of a weak opposition … the opposition is fragmented, disparate, unco-ordinated,” Fakir was recently cited by the US-based Foreign Policy magazine as saying. It’s a view shared by other experts.

As the main liberation movement that fought and helped end apartheid, the ANC have used this fragmentation to their advantage, seeking to downplay the role and relevance of any opposition.

Emeritus professor at the University of the Witwatersrand Susan Booysen says “the greatest irony” of the South African elections was that the decline in the ANC’s support was not leading to a massive increase in support for the top opposition parties.

“This is one of the riddles of South African politics,” Booysen told broadcaster Al Jazeera, “There is a lot of splintering happening. This explains a bit of it. At the same time, much of the discontent with the ANC still goes back to voting for the ANC because there are no sufficient alternative parties, and the ANC have delegitimised the opposition as a viable alternative.”

With 70 political parties and 11 independent candidates contesting Wednesday’s national and provincial elections, it’s precisely this disparate opposition that could prove a political godsend for the ANC.

Given that South Africa’s electoral commission normally starts releasing partial results within hours of the polling stations closing and by law has seven days in which to announce full results, the ANC’s fortunes will be known soon enough.

Should their election-winning streak finally come to an end, it will mark a key moment for the ANC’s “old guard” and the reshaping of South Africa’s political landscape. A landscape so very different from those days of hope back in 1994 when Nelson Mandela became the first Black president of the “rainbow nation”.