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South Africa's 4 big political parties begin final weekend of campaigning ahead of election

MOGOMOTSI MAGOME
May 25, 2024

JOHANNESBURG (AP) -- South Africa's four main political parties began the final weekend of campaigning Saturday before a possibly pivotal election that could bring the country's most important change in three decades.

Supporters of the long-governing African National Congress, which has been in the government ever since the end of white minority rule in 1994, gathered at a soccer stadium in Johannesburg to hear party leader and South African President Cyril Ramaphosa speak.

The ANC is under unprecedented pressure to keep hold of its parliamentary majority in Africa's most advanced country. Having seen its popularity steadily decline over the last two decades, Wednesday's vote could be a landmark moment when the party once led by Nelson Mandela drops below 50% of the vote for the first time.

Several polls have the ANC's support at less than 50%, raising the possibility that it will have to form a national coalition. That would also be a first for South Africa's young democracy, which was only established 30 years ago with the first all-race vote that officially ended the apartheid system of racial segregation.

As thousands of supporters in the ANC's black, green and gold colors attended its last major rally before the election, Ramaphosa recognized some of the grievances that have contributed to his party losing support, which include high levels of poverty and unemployment that mainly affect the country's Black majority.

"We have a plan to get more South Africans to work," Ramaphosa said. "Throughout this campaign, in the homes of our people, in the workplaces, in the streets of our townships and villages, so many of our people told us of their struggles to find work and provide for their families."

The main opposition Democratic Alliance party had a rally in Cape Town, South Africa's second-biggest city and its stronghold. Party leader John Steenhuisen made a speech while supporters in the DA's blue colors held up blue umbrellas.

"Democrats, friends, are you ready for change?" Steenhuisen said. The crowd shouted back "Yes!"

"Are you ready to rescue South Africa?" Steenhuisen added.

While the ANC's support has shrunk in three successive national elections and appears set to continue dropping, no party has emerged to overtake it -- or even challenge it -- and it is still widely expected to be the largest party by some way in this election.

But losing its majority would be the clearest rejection yet of the famous party that led the anti-apartheid movement and is credited with leading South Africans to freedom.

Some ANC supporters at the rally in Johannesburg also expressed their frustration with progress, as South Africa battles poverty, desperately high unemployment, some of the worst levels of inequality in the world, and other problems with corruption, violent crime and the failure of basic government services in some places.

"We want to see job opportunities coming and basically general change in every aspect," ANC supporter Ntombizonke Biyela said. "Since 1994 we have been waiting for ANC, it has been long. We have been voting and voting but we see very little progress as the people, only a special few seem to benefit."

While conceding to some failures, the ANC has maintained that South Africa is a better place than it was during apartheid, when a set of race-based laws oppressed the country's Black majority in favor of a small white minority. The ANC was also widely credited with success in expanding social support and housing and other services for millions of poor South Africans in the decade after apartheid, even if critics say it has lost its way recently.

"There are many problems in South Africa, but nobody can deny the changes that have happened since 1994, and that was because of the ANC," said 42-year-old Eric Phoolo, another supporter of the ruling party. "These other parties don't have a track record of bringing change to the country."

As some voters have turned away from the ANC, it has led to a slow fracturing of South African politics. They have changed allegiances to an array of different opposition parties, some of them new. South Africa has dozens of parties registered to contest next week's election.

South Africans vote for parties and not directly for their president in national elections. Parties then get seats in Parliament according to their share of the vote and the lawmakers elect the president -- which is why the ANC losing its majority would be so critical to the 71-year-old Ramaphosa's hope of being reelected for a second and final five-year term.

If the ANC goes below 50, it would likely need a coalition or agreement with other parties to have the votes in Parliament to keep Ramaphosa, once a protege of Mandela, as president.

The far-left Economic Freedom Fighters had their last big preelection gathering in the northern city of Polokwane, the hometown of fiery leader Julius Malema.

The new MK Party of former South African President and former ANC leader Jacob Zuma was also campaigning in a township just outside the east coast city of Durban, although Zuma didn't attend the event. The 82-year-old Zuma rocked South African politics when he announced late last year he was turning his back on the ANC and joining MK, while fiercely criticizing the ANC under Ramaphosa.

Zuma has been disqualified from standing as a candidate for Parliament in the election because of a previous criminal conviction.

___

Gerald Imray reported from Cape Town, and Farai Mutsaka reported from Durban.

___

AP Africa news: https://apnews.com/hub/africa

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