DURBAN, Feb 24 — South Africa’s ruling ANC launched its election campaign today, hoping to overcome anger over high unemployment and a sluggish economy and to protect its three-decade-old majority.

In power since the advent of democracy in 1994, President Cyril Ramaphosa’s African National Congress has suffered a sharp decline in support, beset by allegations of corruption and mismanagement.

Yet the party remains a formidable machine, with supporters at all levels of government across most of the country, and many South Africans retain proud memories of its lead role in the anti-apartheid struggle.

“Over the next three months we will explain to millions of our people why the ANC remains the party of choice in the 2024 election,” Ramaphosa declared at the launch of his party’s manifesto for the May 29 general election.

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“In the next 50 years, the legacies of apartheid colonialism and patriarchy, which still loom large in South Africa, will be a matter of history. Our confidence rests on that.”

Ramaphosa acknowledged that some party members have been found wanting in recent scandals, and vowed that candidates for elected posts would be rigorously screened.

“Yes, when our members make mistakes, we will correct them, We will make sure that they do the right thing,” he said. “Yes, we are renewing ourselves ... We are becoming better.”

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Tens of thousands of people dressed in the ANC’s yellow and green colours packed into a soccer stadium in the port city of Durban.

They had arrived from the early morning, proud on this day despite the ANC’s shrinking opinion poll lead.

“We were born under this political party and we will go through everything with it,” said Sthabile Nxumalo, 30, who runs a cosmetic business, as she queued to enter the venue with her sister.

The ANC faces an uphill battle to keep its parliamentary majority, with polls showing it particularly vulnerable in Durban’s KwaZulu-Natal — a key electoral battleground.

The province is home to former president Jacob Zuma, who, long resentful about the way he was forced out of office, has joined an opposition group seeking to cut into the ANC’s vote share.

Supporters of the African National Congress (ANC) walk towards the Moses Mabhida Stadium for the Election Manifesto launch in Durban on February 24, 2024. — AFP pic
Supporters of the African National Congress (ANC) walk towards the Moses Mabhida Stadium for the Election Manifesto launch in Durban on February 24, 2024. — AFP pic

Under pressure

ANC supporters at the stadium launch mocked him by parading a coffin representing the death of his new party, the MK, but the fact that he was targeted suggested he has their attention.

“Zuma represents the single biggest threat to the ANC in KwaZulu-Natal,” said politics lecturer Zakhele Ndlovu of the University of KwaZulu-Natal.

South Africa’s second-most populous province, KwaZulu-Natal is seen as a gauge of the ANC’s national prospects.

It has the biggest ANC membership, but the party is already under pressure there from the liberal Democratic Alliance (DA) and its ally, the Zulu nationalist Inkatha Freedom Party.

“If the ANC doesn’t do well in KwaZulu-Natal, it will not do well nationally,” said Susan Booysen, an analyst for the Mapungubwe Institute for Strategic Reflection.

Polls indicate the party could win under half the vote nationwide, which would force it to seek a coalition government to stay in power.

“The big task for the ANC will be, despite all other problems and its own decline, to project itself as a big strong party that can really do things,” said Booysen.

In Durban, Ramaphosa touted the ANC’s credentials as the liberation movement that brought democracy to South Africa and helped lift many from poverty.

Supporters also heard pledges to build energy infrastructure to end crippling power-cuts and to create jobs, but for many voters the plan will be undercut by the ANC’s record.

Supporters wearing t-shirts depicting South African President Cyril Ramaphosa, sing and dance at the African National Congress (ANC) Election Manifesto launch at the Moses Mabhida Stadium in Durban on February 24, 2024. — AFP pic
Supporters wearing t-shirts depicting South African President Cyril Ramaphosa, sing and dance at the African National Congress (ANC) Election Manifesto launch at the Moses Mabhida Stadium in Durban on February 24, 2024. — AFP pic

‘I like Zuma more’

Official figures released over the past weeks show both the murder and the jobless rates have gone up in recent months.

At the stadium, popular singers entertained the crowd as supporters chanted and danced on the stands.

“Before 1994 we didn’t have anything. Now we have free education, we have houses, there has been lots of progress,” said Nomawethu Dlangisa, a teacher in a yellow hat and a long ANC green dress.

Yet, the 52-year-old couldn’t hide her sympathy for Zuma, exemplifying the challenges the party faces in the province.

“I like Ramaphosa, but I like Zuma more,” she said.

Tainted by scandal and facing corruption allegations, 81-year-old Zuma retains the approval of 60 percent of KwaZulu-Natal voters, according to the Social Research Foundation.

His new Umkhonto We Sizwe (MK), or Spear of the Nation, party could win about 20 percent in the province, the pollster said.

“He really is a magnet for people who have become alienated from the ANC,” said Booysen.

But the elderly statesman’s home popularity does not extend nationwide.

An Ipsos survey conducted before MK was established showed the liberal DA and the radical leftist EFF are vying for second place, with about 20 and 19 percent respectively. — AFP