By Alexander Winning and Mfuneko Toyana
PRETORIA (Reuters) – The African National Congress (ANC) was headed toward victory in South Africa’s election on Friday, though the party was on course for its worst performance since it swept to power a quarter of a century ago.
South Africans voting in Wednesday’s election for a new parliament and nine provincial legislatures expressed frustration at rampant corruption, high unemployment and racial inequalities that persist 25 years after the first all-races poll marked the end of white minority rule.
The poll was the toughest test yet for the ANC, which has ruled South Africa since the 1994 election. Nelson Mandela’s former liberation party has not won less than a 60 percent share of the vote since it came to power.
The ANC was in the driving seat for the parliamentary race with more than two-thirds of the voting districts counted.
By 0600 GMT, 75.6 percent of ballots in 22,925 voting districts had been counted, showing the ANC to be in the lead with 57.21 percent, while the main opposition Democratic Alliance (DA) was on 21.81 percent and the leftist Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) had garnered 10 percent.
At the last election in 2014, the ANC won 62 percent of votes, the DA 22 percent and the EFF 6 percent.
The ANC had hoped to reverse or at least arrest a slide in support after its efforts to address racial disparities in land ownership, housing and services since the end of apartheid faltered. South Africa remains one of the most unequal societies in the world, according to the World Bank.
Based on the latest results from the Electoral Commission, analysts predicted the ANC was set for a vote share of between 55-59 percent. A poor showing for the ANC would embolden opponents of President Cyril Ramaphosa and risk a potential challenge to his leadership, analysts have said.
“The ANC will be elected with a record low of 27 percent of the eligible population backing them, compared with 47 percent in 1999. This kind of dynamic is not a mandate nor an impetus to change,” said Peter Attard Montalto, head of capital markets research at Intellidex.
“WILLING TO FORGIVE”
The rand steadied against the dollar in early trade on Friday, with traders saying the currency would remain volatile as markets digest the poll results.
“As the ANC win is digested, markets will swiftly shift their focus to the subsequent actions of the ruling party, including the announcement of cabinet … as well as policies relating to expropriation of land without compensation,” said Bianca Botes, corporate treasury manager at Botes Peregrine Treasury Solutions.
With promises to fight graft, improve public services, put people into jobs and hasten land reforms, Ramaphosa won an internal party leadership election in December 2017, narrowly defeating a faction allied with former head of state Jacob Zuma. Ramaphosa replaced the scandal-plagued Zuma as president of Africa’s most advanced economy three months later.
But his efforts have been constrained by divisions within his own party, where some Zuma supporters still retain influence and oppose his agenda.
“People have shown they are willing to forgive the ANC,” said Ronald Lamola, a member of the ANC’s top governing body. “We are looking at a clear mandate for our policies.”
The ANC achieved its best parliamentary election result in 2004 under former president Thabo Mbeki, when it won more than 69 percent of the vote. But its support fell under Zuma, and it lost control of big cities like Johannesburg, the commercial capital, in local government elections in 2016.
The party controls eight of the country’s nine provinces. The DA has controlled the Western Cape since the 2009 vote.
The partial results showed ANC ahead in Gauteng province, where South Africa’s biggest city Johannesburg and the administrative capital Pretoria are located, while the DA led in the Western Cape, home to Cape Town, where parliament resides.
Election officials said voting in general had progressed smoothly but that there had been isolated disruptions caused by bad weather, unscheduled power outages or community protests.
(Additional reporting by Emma Rumney and Naledi Mashishi; Writing by Tiisetso Motsoeneng and Olivia Kumwenda-Mtambo; Editing by James Macharia and Raissa Kasolowsky)