South African president Jacob Zuma
South African President Jacob Zuma wants to finance 95 percent of his personal house's renovation with taxpayer money. Reuters

Cynicism casts a long shadow over South Africa’s next general elections, the fifth since the end of apartheid. The political wrangling begins in earnest next month, but the fate of this referendum seems written in stone already.

The vote won’t come until 2014, and that’s where the cynicism comes in – most South Africans feel that by the time they cast ballots, the choice will have already been made. It all comes down to a party conference next month, when the African National Congress, or ANC, appoints its new leader.

Since the ANC has no serious challengers, and since the president is not directly elected but ascends as the leader of the winning party, whoever secures the ANC appointment in December should be able to coast into office in 2014.

“As the president of the ANC is elected by the representatives of the party's branches nominated to attend the conference, it does mean that a few thousand people in effect determine who the president of the country will be,” said Elizabeth Sidiropoulos, director of the South African Institute of International Affairs in Johannesburg. “My sense is that the election is Zuma's to lose.”

South African President Jacob Zuma currently leads the party, and he’s aiming to keep his chair next month. It is almost certain that he’ll succeed.

What is not so certain is the future of South Africa’s ruling party, whose popular mandate is waning as opposition forces chip away at its power, bit by bit.

Leaping Leopards

To bolster his electoral chances, the president gathered some friends and family to his sprawling estate in the province of KwaZulu-Natal on Sunday, where he and attendees appealed to the spirits of ancestors who might protect the president from his political enemies.

Zuma, who has never been shy about putting on a show, took up traditional weapons and donned leopard skins to perform a brief but spirited dance for the attendant crowd.

The president should fit right in at Mangaung, a metropolis in the Free State province whose name means “place of leopards” in the local Sesotho language. That’s where ANC delegates from around the country will hold their conference to appoint a new administration in December.

But Zuma will have to be on his guard. His own Deputy President Kgalema Motlanthe is also expected to vie for the ANC’s top spot, and the challenger has garnered some ardent supporters as Zuma’s popularity has waned.

Provincial ANC leaders in KwaZulu-Natal set the stage for a showdown on Sunday evening when they nominated Cyril Ramaphosa, a political heavyweight and wildly successful businessman, to replace Motlanthe as ANC deputy president. Motlanthe, so summarily snubbed, is now free to pursue the presidency himself, a post he once held temporarily as a placeholder for Zuma after the 2008 ouster of former President Thabo Mbeki.

Motlanthe is already supported by the ANC Youth League, a faction of the party that has opposed Zuma and drawn attention to the party’s failures, which include corruption and an inability to address South Africa’s yawning wealth gap. The ANC Youth League was recently led by Julius Malema, an incendiary figure who was expelled from the party for hate speech in 2011 and is now on trial for money laundering.

The ANCYL’S support for Motlanthe over Zuma is a clear sign of growing divisions within the ruling party. Analysts admit that the challenger’s odds of unseating the president are quite slim – Zuma can probably rest easy for 2014, barring some ANC catastrophe. But the trends at play point to the need for serious soul-searching down the line.

Falling Down

South Africa’s ruling party has slowly grown out of touch with a whole generation of disillusioned voters, many of whom see the ANC, a party once oppressed in the age of apartheid, as their new oppressor. While societal divisions between black and white have blurred in recent decades, the line between the haves and have-nots remains quite clear.

South Africa's GDP of about $408 billion makes it the largest economy on the continent; it is widely considered one of the world's nascent economic powerhouses. But the country also has one of the world's biggest income gaps. Poverty is widespread, inequality is endemic and unemployment is around 25 percent (for black youths, joblessness is running at 50 percent).

The ANC has done plenty to seek to improve the overall quality of life for South Africa's 48.8 million people since 1994, including the implementation of social programs meant to build housing, create jobs and establish a safety net for the country’s poorest citizens. But infighting, corruption and inefficiency have plagued these efforts.

To top things off, the economy has slowed down in recent months; GDP growth is sputtering. The value of the South African rand hit new lows this year, just as South Africa’s credit rating was downgraded by both Moody’s and Standard & Poor’s. Labor disputes have worsened this economic morass, culminating in a series of strikes that affected the mining, farming and transportation industries and led to the deaths of at least 50 people in clashes between strikers and security officials this summer.

The issue exploded on Aug. 16, when 34 miners on wildcat strike at a platinum mine in Marikana were shot dead by police who allegedly acted in self-defense. The schism between security officials and poverty-stricken workers – and the tragic violence that resulted – recalled painful memories from South Africa’s apartheid era.

The strikes also involved power struggles among labor organizations as more radical unions entered the scene, voicing dissatisfaction with the representation of the National Union of Mineworkers, or NUM, which is closely allied to the ANC.

“The protracted strikes and unrest among mining and farming communities have exposed the soft underbelly of our post-apartheid social fabric,” explains Sidiropoulos. “It may not affect the ANC at the polls significantly [in 2014], but it widens the disconnect between the elites and the ordinary people, many of whom are young, unemployed or dependent on social grants.”

Now that ANC leaders have nominated Ramaphosa to act as deputy president, the division between competing party factions may deepen. Ramaphosa was a one-time leader of the NUM and played a huge role in building the union's influence; he also sits on the board of Lonmin PLC, the company that operated the mine where 34 workers lost their lives.

Chipping Away

Even though ANC will almost certainly cruise to victory in the next election, past votes already show that the party’s base is gradually dwindling.

The last time South Africa went to the ballot box was for the municipal elections of 2011. The ANC saw its support drop to 62 percent, down from the 65.9 percent it had won the 2009 general election.

The Democratic Alliance, or DA, is the ANC’s biggest challenger. It gained 23.9 percent of the vote in 2011, up from 16.6 in 2009. This socially liberal and fiscally centrist bloc, which has roots in the anti-apartheid movement, is the strongest opposition party in the country. But its prospects are limited by the persistent perception that the party’s strings are pulled by white politicians.

Sidiropoulos explains that the DA "made great strides in both the national elections and the local government elections held in 2011. It now controls the Western Cape and the City of Cape Town and has made headway in a number of municipalities, and has begun to change the composition of its membership and support base beyond its traditional white and [mixed-race] constituency.”

No one is betting that the DA will somehow steal the show in 2014, just as few hold out hope for the success of Motlanthe and his young backers among the ANC. Zuma is likely to serve out his second and final term, now with business-savvy Ramaphosa at his side to help the faltering economy get back on its feet.

But a fundamental change is almost certainly in the cards for Africa’s most prosperous country. And if ANC fails to address its most serious problems on its own, a new challenger is bound to emerge – eventually – who will stand a fighting chance to depose the party that now rests too comfortably on a fading legacy.