South Africans head to the polls in high-stakes election

South Africans head to the polls in high-stakes election
Voters queue outside a polling station in Juju Valley, Polokwane, on May 29, 2024, during South Africa’s general election. (Paul Botes/AFP via Getty Images)

(LONDON and PRETORIA, South Africa) — Millions of South Africans are heading to the polls as voting opens in South Africa’s national and provisional elections.

At least 27 million people are registered to vote across South Africa’s nine provinces, according to South Africa’s Electoral Commission, in elections seen as the most crucial in three decades.

It is the first time in 30 years South Africa’s ruling African National Congress (ANC) party is not assured a majority after sweeping to power in 1994 at the end of apartheid, led by former South African President and anti-apartheid leader Nelson Mandela.

Polls opened at 7 a.m. local time (1 a.m. ET) and lines formed early across schools, city halls, community centers and other designated polling stations across the country.

South African President Cyril Ramaphosa and first lady Tshepo Motsepe on Wednesday morning cast their votes at Hitekani Primary School in Soweto, Johannesburg.

“This is the day that South Africa decides,” he said addressing the media.

How do the elections work?

South Africans do not vote directly for the president, but instead cast ballots to elect a new parliament known as the National Assembly. Votes determine which parties — or alliances — get seats in parliament according to their share of the national vote. The 400-member National Assembly then elects the head of state for the next five-year term.

Since 1994, the ANC has held a parliamentary majority, winning 57.5% in South Africa’s last national elections in 2019. However, several polls have projected the ANC’s support is hovering at around 40% this cycle.

This could mean the ANC may have to seek coalition partners to remain in power — unchartered waters for the party and South Africa’s young democracy.

What are the key issues for voters?

Although it is Africa’s most advanced economy, South Africa has an unemployment rate of 32.4%, the highest in the world and a figure 10 points higher than when the ANC first came to power in 1994 as young people account for over half of the nations unemployed.

Unemployment has fueled inequality, poverty and crime with South Africa recording one of the world’s highest rates of violent crime, particularly in densely populated townships.

A string of corruption scandals involving ANC figures have tainted the party’s perception in recent memory as many young voters without the lived experience of apartheid or the same sentimental connection to the party are growing disillusioned and losing faith in the democratic process.

Scheduled rolling mass blackouts — known to South Africans as “load shedding” — have become the bane of households and businesses across the country, as state utility company Eskom grapples with scandals and an inability to generate enough electricity to meet demand.

Who are the Key Contenders?

The ANC faces fierce challenges from South Africa’s two biggest opposition parties — The Democratic Alliance (DA) of John Steenhuisen and the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) of firebrand Julius Malema.

South Africa’s embattled former President Jacob Zuma has also shaken up the elections, abandoning the ANC to back a new party named after the now-disbanded military wing of the ANC uMkhonto we Sizwe, meaning “Spear of the Nation” in Zulu.

Polling stations are set to close at 9 p.m. local time with the final results expected on Sunday.

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