The African National Congress (ANC) will win a majority in South Africa's presidential and parliamentary elections on 7 May but it will be a hollow victory and usher in a period of intensifying political competition, rivalry and change within the party.
Satisfaction with the party's performance in government has been declining, driven by popular frustrations at growing inequality, poor provision of government services, such as health and education, and high unemployment. President Jacob Zuma's ratings are particularly poor, partly in reaction to the corruption surrounding the 246 million rand security upgrades to his sprawling homestead near Nkandla in the hills of KwaZulu-Natal.
Zuma's unpopularity is not reflected in support for the ANC. Their polling remains strong and one can expect the ANC to win between 64 and 66 per cent of the vote in this month's election.
The ANC campaign has highlighted its successes as the dominant party of government over the past two decades such as the increase in social grants, mass construction of social housing and provision of basic services. The memorials for Nelson Mandela following his death in December 2013 and celebrations of twenty years of democracy this April are strong reminders of what was sacrificed for the right to vote and that the ANC was the vanguard of this struggle.
Increasingly though, for many voters, continued support for the ANC is solely based on the lack of a credible electoral alternative.
Opposition parties have found it difficult to generate nationwide traction. The main opposition party, the Democratic Alliance (DA), has demonstrated effective governance in the Western Cape and will increase its share of the vote, especially by taking votes from ANC breakaway party Congress of the People (COPE), which is in decline. But the DA manifesto presents a policy platform that is not markedly different to the ANC's, and the perception of it being 'the White party' means it struggles to command support among rural black voters.
A quarter of the voting age population are in the 18-29 age bracket. Many of them lack jobs and are too young to remember the liberation struggle for majority rule that ended with South Africa's first multiparty elections 20 years ago. The youth vote is the target for a new party, the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF). Formed by populist Julius Malema, former head of the ANC Youth League, its core constituency is a generation who have benefited from the changes of the last 20 years, but who feel they have not benefitted enough. Mobilization of young voters is difficult, and of those that have registered to vote, the majority support the ANC.
A party that truly represents the interests of the working class is the notable absence in these elections. The alliance between the ANC, the Congress of South African Trade Unions, and the South African Communist Party ensures the working class vote for the ANC. But these workers have not benefitted from an ANC liberal economic policy that has prioritised growth at the expense of protecting jobs. The National Union of Metal Workers of South Africa has withdrawn its support for the ANC calling for an alternative for the working class. Other factions have maintained support for the party, but this is not guaranteed after the elections.
Intra-party competition has replaced inter-party competition, and although the ANC has been able to present a relatively united front ahead of the elections, once the campaign is over things will begin to change. The party's next leadership election is at the party conference in 2017 and a serious challenger is yet to emerge - although many see Cyril Ramaphosa, former trade unionist and reluctant entrepreneur, as the 'prince in waiting'.
The net result is that the ANC has a broad constituency covering a wide segment of the political spectrum. Although this constituency is increasingly disassociating itself with ANC policy a serious alternative to the ANC is yet to materialize.
Generating job creating sustainable growth must be the priority for the ANC if it is to narrow the gap between voters' polling support and their satisfaction with the party's performance in government. Failure to deliver on jobs, education, public services and transparency in government will result in decreasing support for the party and internal factional fighting could eventually lead to the splintering of the ANC.
Chris Vandome is Administrator and Research Assistant in the Africa Programme of Chatham House.