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South Africa's ruling party holds rally ahead of major electoral challenge

SCOTT DETROW, HOST:

It's been 30 years since apartheid was dismantled and the African National Congress, or ANC, came to power in South Africa. And in next week's elections, they face their most serious challenge yet. Today in the liberation heartland of Soweto, the ruling party made its last pitch to voters. Thousands of ANC faithful streamed into a stadium there to attend a massive final rally. NPR's Emmanuel Akinwotu was there. Hey there.

EMMANUEL AKINWOTU, BYLINE: Hey.

DETROW: What has been the mood of the campaign, and what is at stake here?

AKINWOTU: Well, a lot, which is why, for the last few weeks, they really have been pulling out all the stops, wheeling out major liberation figures to rally support. And today, this was essentially the last big push ahead of the vote to try and inspire huge support through its base across the country.

UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: (Singing in non-English language).

AKINWOTU: More than 50,000 people descended on the FNB Stadium in Soweto, waving flags draped in the black, gold and green of the ANC, singing liberation songs. This is still a party with formidable support, with a history that still evokes deep emotion, even among detractors. But it's also under strain. Their share of the vote has fallen in every election since they gained power in 1994, and now it could dip below 50% for the first time. And that means that they would need a coalition to govern. This is still a movement and a party that brought about the end of apartheid, and it's made great strides since then. But there's a growing number of especially younger voters who are fed up.

DETROW: What are some of the specific reasons why people are so disillusioned with the ANC?

AKINWOTU: Well, firstly, the unemployment rate in South Africa is one of the highest in the world. Almost half of people under 35 are out of work. And it's something that's been coming up in so many conversations on the streets here. And it was the first major issue President Cyril Ramaphosa addressed earlier today in his speech.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRESIDENT CYRIL RAMAPHOSA: We have met mothers and fathers, grandparents and young people. So many of them told us of their struggles to find work and to provide for their families so that they can live in dignity and pride.

AKINWOTU: South Africa is one of the richest countries on the continent, but it's also one of the most unequal countries in the world. Inequality has actually gotten worse in recent years, and even delivering basic services has become a major challenge. There have been frequent power cuts, called loadshedding. There's also been water shortages, and it's left so many people feeling apathetic. Some people told me that if they had to vote, they'd probably still choose the ANC, but there's a real chance that they won't even turn out because they're losing hope that things will change.

DETROW: So the ANC is facing pressure here. What parties pose the biggest threat to them?

AKINWOTU: Well, there are more than 30 parties running in the national election. The main opposition is the Democratic Alliance, which is widely held as representing the interests of the white minority. But it's really the smaller parties that are the story of this election. In particular, there's the uMkhonto we Sizwe party, or MK, and that party is led by a controversial former president, Jacob Zuma, who was once a major figure in the ANC. He was actually forced to resign as president in 2018 after corruption allegations, but now he's leading a charge against his former party.

There's also the radical left-wing Economic Freedom Fighters party, and they're led by firebrand figure Julius Malema, another former ANC son. It's important to note it's a parliamentary system here in South Africa, so whichever party gets the largest share of the vote, they get to nominate the president. And that will most likely still be the ANC, but you still need 50% to govern. And if they don't get that, it's going to be a huge blow. For millions of people here, especially older people, the ANC is a part of their identity. But after 30 years, many people are disillusioned, and the ANC is having to fight harder than ever to keep power.

DETROW: Emmanuel Akinwotu in Johannesburg, South Africa. Thank you so much.

AKINWOTU: 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.

Emmanuel Akinwotu
Emmanuel Akinwotu is an international correspondent for NPR. He joined NPR in 2022 from The Guardian, where he was West Africa correspondent.
Scott Detrow is a White House correspondent for NPR and co-hosts the NPR Politics Podcast.
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