South African president Jacob Zuma has been accused of abusing his authority © AFP

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It is winter in South Africa — and in the grand Edwardian surroundings of Johannesburg City Hall, an almost entirely black audience sits huddled in blankets, woollen hats and scarves as a mist descends on the gloomy streets outside. Only when the music cranks up and the party leader shimmies on to the stage shouting “amandla”, the rallying cry of the African National Congress during the apartheid era, do people clamber to their feet.

However, this is not an ANC rally and the optimism with which Africa’s oldest liberation movement rose to power in 1994 has long since chilled. Instead, the large crowds of black voters are attending an election rally organised by the opposition Democratic Alliance, a party until recently considered irretrievably white — and thus unelectable by the country’s black majority.

South Africa’s municipal elections, which take place on Wednesday, have in effect turned into a referendum on the ANC. They are the country’s most closely watched polls in many years.

The ANC once commanded the undying loyalty of most black South Africans, but it is widely perceived to have lost its way under President Jacob Zuma — the country’s economy has stopped dead in its tracks and, by some measures, a third of people are out of work.

The DA now has its first black leader, Mmusi Maimane, a charismatic lay preacher who has promised to turn the party into a pluralist organisation worthy of Nelson Mandela’s vision of a South Africa free from racial divides.

“When the ANC fall, Madiba will stand,” he booms into a tinny microphone at the rally, using the clan name by which Mandela, the country’s liberation hero, is affectionately known. “Because Madiba was bigger than just the ANC. He was the father of the nation.”

Mr Maimane had come out to support the party’s candidate for the mayor of Johannesburg, who is promising to improve local services and to put the “job” back in “Joburg”. The ANC is vulnerable to defeat here and in other symbolically important cities this week.

“These are the most significant elections in the 20-odd years we’ve had democracy,” says Xolela Mangcu, professor of sociology at the University of Cape Town. “The genie is out of the bottle for the ANC because of Jacob Zuma’s flagrant abuse of power and all the shenanigans that have dogged his administration.”

Those “shenanigans” include the controversy over Nkandla, Mr Zuma’s lavish estate, where he built a visitor centre, cattle enclosure, swimming pool and amphitheatre, in the name of much-ridiculed “security upgrades” that cost the taxpayer R246m ($17.7m).

The president has been ordered to repay part of the cash, but his seemingly brazen abuse of authority, condemned by the constitutional court, has come to symbolise an administration widely viewed as more interested in feathering its own nest than solving the nation’s festering poverty, violence and inequality. In July, the International Monetary Fund cut its estimate for South Africa’s growth this year to only 0.1 per cent.

The ANC not only faces a challenge from the right in the form of the DA. Its support base is also being eroded from the left by the breakaway Economic Freedom Fighters, led by Julius Malema, a firebrand who is stirring up support in townships and poor rural communities with a heady brew of policies that promise redistribution and land expropriation from rich white South Africans.

As if that were not enough, the ANC is also riven by internal factions and several party heavyweights have come out against Mr Zuma. “The centre is not holding. You have multiple ANCs,” says Mcebisi Ndletyana, head of political economy at the University of Johannesburg.

However, attempts to dislodge the president have failed. Such is his skill at political manoeuvring and his tight control of the party machinery, not to mention its finances, that few think he can be toppled before his term ends in 2019.

In this week’s municipal elections, where voters will select ward, district and metropolitan representatives, there is a particular focus on three cities — Johannesburg, Port Elizabeth and Pretoria, the capital. In all three, the ANC stands a real chance of losing its majority and possibly even its ability to govern. Nationally, analysts are predicting that the party’s support could drop below 60 per cent for the first time since it came to power and ended white minority rule.

At the DA rally in Johannesburg, many voters are seriously contemplating a post-ANC era for the first time. “I want to see a change,” says Bucy Witbooi, a 32-year-old DA supporter with a baby nestled in a blanket on her back. “We don’t get benefit from the ANC. They only work for themselves.”

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2017. All rights reserved.
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