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More than half the world goes to the polls in 2024. South Africa is one to watch

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

It's been called the Democracy Super Bowl. More than half the world is set to go to the polls in 2024 - regional elections to national leaders. Eighteen of those elections are in Africa, where South Africa's ruling National Congress party, the continent's oldest liberation party, embodied for so long by Nelson Mandela, faces its most competitive electoral challenge since the end of apartheid in 1994. Reporter Kate Bartlett joins us from Johannesburg. Kate, thanks for being with us.

KATE BARTLETT: Hi, Scott.

SIMON: Could the party of Nelson Mandela lose power, or at least its majority?

BARTLETT: Power, definitely not. But this is certainly the most critical election in 30 years of South African democracy. The ANC has a huge legacy here. I mean, it brought Black majority rule to South Africa. Multiple polls in the past few months have shown the ANC getting below 50%. However, President Cyril Ramaphosa said publicly last week he's confident the ANC will retain its majority.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRESIDENT CYRIL RAMAPHOSA: Is 30 years enough to erase the impact of colonialism and apartheid? My answer to that is 30 years is not enough. We need more time.

BARTLETT: Ramaphosa may sound confident there, but the party is privately worried about its dwindling support.

SIMON: And why do you think the party has lost popularity?

BARTLETT: I mean, already the last elections in 2019 showed its popularity was waning. The ANC's share of the vote then dropped to 57%. That was down from a massive 69% in 2004 elections. Ray Hartley is with South African think tank the Brenthurst Foundation, and they did an October poll that showed the ANC getting just 41% in this year's elections. And he told me that the ANC has never been weaker.

RAY HARTLEY: I think this is the most important election since 1994. And for the first time, there is going to be some political competition. And political competition should make all parties better, should make them fight harder to win voters over. And that's good for democracy and for delivery.

BARTLETT: I mean, you asked why the ANC's popularity has waned. There's several key factors, including seemingly endless corruption scandals in government, high levels of unemployment, with youth unemployment at a shocking 60% - over 60% - and an energy crisis that saw almost daily blackouts around the country last year. You know, we never know if the lights are going to be on or not. South Africans are really fed up. This is supposed to be the most industrialized country on the continent, but there's low economic growth. The constant water and electricity shortages make doing business and just daily life really difficult.

SIMON: Who are the main challengers to the ANC?

BARTLETT: The biggest opposition party here is the Democratic Alliance. It already holds power locally in some key areas. But it struggles with a major image problem. Many Black South Africans won't vote DA because the leader is a white man, and they see it as a white party. Another alternative is the radical left-wing populist party, the Economic Freedom Fighters. And a coalition of seven opposition parties just came together last August to form a pre-election agreement known as the Multi-Party Charter.

Also, former President Jacob Zuma, a lifelong ANC stalwart, unexpectedly just threw his weight behind the newly formed opposition party, saying he wouldn't vote for the ANC, and the party is, quote, "uMkhonto we Sizwe." It's been a huge story here because the party cheekily steals its name from the ANC's now disbanded armed wing, which Zuma himself was closely involved with for years during the apartheid era.

But it's unclear if any of these parties by themselves could pose much of a threat to the ANC, really. You know, Ramaphosa came in on a wave of popularity. He was seen as someone who would clean up the ANC and what many considered the mess left behind by Zuma. But he's been cautious to keep party unity. And lots of South Africans think he's failed to act.

SIMON: Reporter Kate Bartlett in Johannesburg. Thanks so much.

BARTLETT: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

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Scott Simon is one of America's most admired writers and broadcasters. He is the host of Weekend Edition Saturday and is one of the hosts of NPR's morning news podcast Up First. He has reported from all fifty states, five continents, and ten wars, from El Salvador to Sarajevo to Afghanistan and Iraq. His books have chronicled character and characters, in war and peace, sports and art, tragedy and comedy.
Kate Bartlett