Photographer: Michael Sheehan/AFP via Getty Images

Battleground City Shows Honeymoon Is Over for South Africa's ANC

  • Ruling party's election rally falls flat in Port Elizabeth
  • Mayor who headed soccer Word Cup bid tasked with turnaround

South Africa’s ruling African National Congress handed out free t-shirts, hired popular bands and sent its top leaders to a rally in Port Elizabeth to launch its campaign for upcoming municipal elections. Less than half the supporters it expected showed up.

A hub for South Africa’s automotive industry, Port Elizabeth has emerged as one of three battleground cities where the ANC risks losing control in the Aug. 3 vote. As shown by the poor turnout last weekend at the 46,000-seat stadium that the ANC used to fill with ease, the party of Nelson Mandela is feeling the cost of mounting disillusionment with President Jacob Zuma.

Jacob Zuma in Port Elizabeth.
Jacob Zuma in Port Elizabeth.
Photographer: Michael Shehan/AFP via Getty Images

“People are frustrated with the ANC here and stopped supporting it because there are no jobs, there’s corruption and it’s all a mess,” said Simphiwe Jali, a 33-year-old father of three who guards cars for small change outside the Port Elizabeth city hall. “I won’t vote for the ANC because it seems like people in government don’t care about the needs of the people. They only care about enriching themselves.”

Constitutional Violation

Zuma, 74, has become a lightning rod for discontent with the ANC after a series of missteps. The nation’s highest court ruled last month that he violated the constitution by refusing to repay taxpayer money spent on his private home. In December, Zuma sparked a sell-off in the rand by appointing a little-known lawmaker as finance minister. And ANC officials have accused him of allowing a wealthy Indian family who’re in business with his son to offer cabinet posts in exchange for business concessions. Yet the ANC’s national executive committee, which is stacked with his allies, has stood by him.

While the ANC is still credited with leading the fight against apartheid rule and has won more than 60 percent support in every election since the first multiracial vote in 1994, Zuma’s travails have given hope to the Democratic Alliance and Economic Freedom Fighters, the main opposition parties. Besides Port Elizabeth, the ANC risks losing control of the capital, Pretoria, and Johannesburg, the biggest city.

“It seems likely that the ANC will lose some support,” Nic Borain, a political analyst and adviser to BNP Paribas Securities South Africa, said by phone from Cape Town. “If the party drops 5 or 6 percent in the election, most within the ANC will view that as a consequence of Zuma’s behavior.”

General Motors

A city of 1.2 million people, Port Elizabeth is part of the Nelson Mandela Bay Municipality, which serves as a local base for General Motors Co. and Volkswagen AG. While the city’s beachfront boasts a boardwalk surrounded by manicured lawns, restaurants and hotels, disgruntlement among its poorer residents is manifest in the sprawling, litter-strewn townships of Motherwell and Wells Estate on the northern fringes. Sub-standard state housing, a lack of clean water and sanitation and a proliferation of gangs are among the main complaints.

The city has had six mayors and six municipal managers over the past 15 years, several of whom have left office amid allegations they were corrupt or inept. In the last municipal elections in 2011, the ANC won 51 percent of the vote in Port Elizabeth to the DA’s 40 percent. In national elections three years later, the ANC’s support had slipped to 49 percent, while the DA’s gained by 1 percentage point.

World Cup

Last year, the ANC sought to halt the slide by appointing Danny Jordaan, 64, who headed South Africa’s successful bid for the 2010 soccer World Cup and the local committee that organized the tournament, as mayor of Port Elizabeth. Since taking office he’s fired 29 officials implicated in graft and cut costs to eliminate a 400-million-rand ($28 million) budget deficit. While the ANC has yet to announce its mayoral candidate, it’s likely to renominate Jordaan.

“We have achieved financial stability,” Jordaan told reporters ahead of the campaign launch. “We have dealt with corruption. There is a determined commitment from all of us to have a metro that delivers to the people. The ANC here is very, very strong, make no mistake. ”

The DA, which controls 18 of South Africa’s 278 municipalities, including Cape Town, has sought to focus voter attention on Zuma’s failings in its Port Elizabeth campaign. Last week, it erected a roadside billboard reading “Danny Jordaan, proudly bought to you by Jacob Zuma.” The municipality later removed the poster.

Jordaan’s Success

“It would be catastrophic for the ANC to lose,” Athol Trollip, 52, the DA’s mayoral candidate for the city, said in an interview. “It will give us the platform to win other metros.”

Jordaan’s success in improving the administration of Port Elizabeth may not be enough to maintain its control of the city, according to Borain.

“Having put in a mayor who has done good work and is fairly popular, the ANC hoped they would make an impression on the metro,” he said. “It looks like they might have misjudged the extent of the loss in support they have taken. It’s difficult to not extrapolate that they may be losing support in other regions.”

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