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South Africa's ruling party has a lot riding on national election

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

It's election day in South Africa, and the big question is whether the ruling African National Congress, or ANC, will lose its absolute majority for the first time in its history.

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Yeah. They've dominated the government since the 1990s. And if the ANC's share of the vote should dip significantly below 50% - significantly below half - it could mean that Africa's oldest liberation party would have to share power.

FADEL: NPR's Emmanuel Akinwotu joins us from a polling station in Durban, one of the major battlegrounds in this election. Good morning, Emmanuel.

EMMANUEL AKINWOTU, BYLINE: Good morning, Leila.

FADEL: So just how critical is today's vote?

AKINWOTU: Well, this could be a major turning point in South Africa, and it comes 30 years since the end of apartheid. And over that time, the ANC - they've gone from being this revered liberation movement to a political party that now has dwindling support. Its vote share has gradually decreased over time. And now it's at a tipping point where, as you said, it can fall below 50% for the first time. And that would be a real blow to the party's prestige and an indictment on their record. So you can probably hear soccer games around me.

FADEL: Yeah.

AKINWOTU: I'm actually at a high school, and the polling station's on the other side. This is actually the same ward where Nelson Mandela voted for the first time. And being here has just been a reminder of, I guess, the country's history, how far it's come. But talking to people has also brought home the point about, you know, people increasingly feel that the country needs a new direction. I spoke to a 24-year-old, Nqobile Khumalo, and it's actually her birthday today. And she arrived really early. The polls opened at 7 a.m., and she said she really hoped young people would come out and vote today.

NQOBILE KHUMALO: Just wake up, man. Vote (laughter). Vote for change because if you don't vote, where do you expect change?

FADEL: Vote for change, she told you. So why has the ANC lost support?

AKINWOTU: Well, one of the things I've heard over and over again is that there are just not enough opportunities for young people, especially graduates. You know, South Africa has one of the highest rates of unemployment in the world. We drove by businesses the other day. There was one business that was advertising just a single job, and there were at least a hundred people outside the business, you know, queuing with their CVs. You know, it just shows the kind of desperation that exists here.

And then there are other issues, too - you know, issues with major service provision, water scarcity, electricity cuts and corruption scandals within the ruling ANC. President Cyril Ramaphosa, he's seeking reelection and the largest party nominates the president. So he'll likely stay on, but his stock and his authority has really taken a hit. And there are a number of smaller parties that are now making headway.

FADEL: What happens if these smaller parties are successful?

AKINWOTU: Well, if the ANC's share of the vote dips to around 40%, it would pretty much be a disaster for the ANC. And, you know, the last time in 2019, they got 57%. That's what it achieved. So it would basically mean the ANC would have to approach one of the other parties, depending on how well they do, and go into a coalition with them. The ANC have basically been keen to point out that a coalition would be really damaging for the country, but the challenge is that more and more people feel that the status quo could be described that way. This is still a party that has formidable support, so you can't rule them out. But it's clear they're facing their biggest-ever challenge.

FADEL: That's NPR's Emmanuel Akinwotu in Durban, South Africa. Thank you, Emmanuel.

AKINWOTU: Thanks, Leila. 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.

Emmanuel Akinwotu
Emmanuel Akinwotu is an international correspondent for NPR. He joined NPR in 2022 from The Guardian, where he was West Africa correspondent.
Leila Fadel is a national correspondent for NPR based in Los Angeles, covering issues of culture, diversity, and race.