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South Africans vote in the most pivotal election since the end of the apartheid

Chris Mcgrath | Getty Images News | Getty Images
  • South Africa heads to the polls on Wednesday, and the dominance of the ANC is expected to wane.
  • The issues facing the country are many and remain systemic. They include widespread blackouts, high unemployment, political corruption and shocking crime statistics.
  • Fitch Solutions expects the ANC to form a coalition with smaller parties, but also flagged several unexpected — but possible — outcomes that could be negatively received by markets.

Some 30 years on from the peaceful transition from apartheid rule to democracy, South Africa could once again be on the cusp of change.

Since coming to power in South Africa's first democratic election in 1994, the African National Congress has focused on making inclusivity a core pillar of the country's economy.

But its efforts to raise the living standards of the disadvantaged have not always been successful, and in Wednesday's election, the dominance of the party is expected to wane.

Current polling suggests that the ANC, led by President Cyril Ramaphosa, could see its share of the vote fall below 50% for the first time.

While the party of Nelson Mandela had 57.5% support in the last national election, it was already edging close to losing its stronghold in key areas such as the economic hub of the country, Gauteng.

Of the 62-million-strong population, more than 27.6 million South Africans are registered to vote. Turnout may be a worry as voter apathy rises.

At the last national assembly election in 2019, turnout was 66%, already 7 percentage points lower than the previous vote. Even with the highest possible voter turnout, the ANC's result is expected to drop below 50%.

Blackouts, unemployment, corruption and crime

The issues facing the country are many and remain systemic.

Africa's most industrialized nation has a weak power grid that has led to hundreds of hours of blackouts hampering development and manufacturing.

Vehicles travel along a dark street without lighting during a load-shedding power outage period, in central Johannesburg, South Africa, on Feb. 13, 2023.
Bloomberg | Bloomberg | Getty Images
Vehicles travel along a dark street without lighting during a load-shedding power outage period, in central Johannesburg, South Africa, on Feb. 13, 2023.

It is also battling an unemployment rate of almost 33% — among the highest in the world — anemic economic growth that may not reach 1% this year and corruption scandals that have pointed to weaknesses in governance by the ANC and its affiliates.

In addition to this, the country has one of the highest violent crime rates in the world, with 45 murders for every 100,000 people.  

Voters have much more choice this time around, with many more candidates to choose from.

Some 14,889 candidates will stand in contention for 887 seats across at least 70 parties.

While the incumbent Ramaphosa stands again, his biggest rivals include John Steenhuisen from Democratic Alliance and Julius Malema from Economic Freedom Fighters.

Former South African President Jacob Zuma dances on stage before speaking to supporters at Puma Stadium in Emalahleni, South Africa, on May 26, 2024.
Per-anders Pettersson | Getty Images News | Getty Images
Former South African President Jacob Zuma dances on stage before speaking to supporters at Puma Stadium in Emalahleni, South Africa, on May 26, 2024.

All face a familiar foe who could serve as king-maker in this election. Former President Jacob Zuma is currently leader of uMkhonto weSizwe, a political party only created in December 2023.

Zuma, who was sentenced to 15 months in prison for failing to appear at an inquiry into corruption, has recently won a court battle allowing him to run for parliament.

'Significantly adverse market reaction'

If polls are to be believed, the election results will see South Africa end up with its first coalition government.

Analysts from Fitch Solutions expect the ANC to form a coalition with smaller parties, "allowing it to remain the main policy driver."

However, they flagged several unexpected — but possible — outcomes that could be negatively received by markets.

"We continue to flag three alternative scenarios: the ANC scraping a slim majority, an ANC-Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) coalition, or a win by the opposition coalition, the Multi-Party Charter," the Fitch Solutions analysts wrote earlier this month.

"While any of the coalition groupings will pose headwinds to policymaking, negatively impacting investor sentiment, we flag that an ANC-EFF coalition would likely result in a significantly adverse market reaction, negatively impacting bond yields and the rand."

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