President Jacob Zuma had an incendiary message for the thousands of blacks at a soccer field in an impoverished township. "The oppressors still control the economy," he told the election campaign rally, speaking in the Zulu language. "The black nation must unite until the land is returned."
It was a blatant racial appeal, portraying the biggest opposition party as a "white" organization that must be fought by South Africa's black majority. At campaign rally after campaign rally, Mr. Zuma has recalled the battles of the apartheid era, denouncing the rival party as a "poisonous snake" filled with "hatred" of black people.
The racial sloganeering is expected to help Mr. Zuma's ruling party, the African National Congress, to maintain its overall majority in local elections on Wednesday. But it's a far cry from the multiracial values of the ANC's most famous leader, Nelson Mandela, who preached racial reconciliation as he led the party to triumph over apartheid in the 1990s.
Mr. Zuma presides over a deeply unpopular government, and polls suggest that the ANC might lose its grip on key cities such as Johannesburg, Pretoria and Port Elizabeth in the elections. But even if its support is reduced from the 62 per cent that it captured in the 2014 national election, the ANC is unlikely to fall below 50 per cent in most cities in the local elections – and its racial sloganeering is a key reason for its probable victory.
Why this election matters
South Africa is one of the most powerful engines in the African economy, yet the ANC's policies have led to economic stagnation and rising unemployment. If the party's election results are worse than expected, an internal revolt could force Mr. Zuma to quit, leading to economic reforms that could boost growth in South Africa and the rest of the continent.
But a strong ANC majority would keep him in power and allow him to influence the succession after he steps down in 2019. This would extend the economic malaise and corruption that have already led to rising protests and discontent.
A recent poll commissioned by the Centre for International Governance Innovation, based in Waterloo, Ont., found that 66 per cent of urban South Africans feel the ANC government is doing a poor job of responding to people's needs. This kind of anger and disillusionment will be dangerous for South Africa's social stability if the ANC remains in power.
That's one reason why many analysts are calling Wednesday's elections the most significant in South Africa's post-apartheid history. "The country feels exposed and fearful, its nerves on edge," political commentator Barney Mthombothi wrote this month.
A record 63,654 candidates will compete for the support of a record 26.3 million registered voters in the elections. Some ANC members have squabbled over the potentially lucrative positions in the party's election list, with the disputes sometimes leading to bloodshed. Close to 20 dead candidates will appear on ballot papers because they were killed during the campaign and there wasn't time to remove their names. Many former ANC supporters, disillusioned by the feuding and corruption, will simply not bother to show up at the polling stations.
Mr. Zuma, a 74-year-old Zulu traditionalist with four wives, was a political prisoner in the apartheid era and later became the head of counter-intelligence in the exiled ANC's shadowy department of security. He thrives in the machinations of internal politics, maintaining his power by appointing his loyalists to key positions in the party ranks – even when he has been besieged by corruption allegations and other controversies.
The worst of those scandals led to a devastating court ruling against him this year. South Africa's highest court concluded that he had breached the constitution by ignoring an order to repay a portion of the $27-million (U.S.) in state funds that were spent on his luxurious family residence in Nkandla village. He has now been ordered to repay more than $560,000 by early October. Opposition parties tried to impeach him for violating the constitution, but the vote failed.
In a separate scandal this year, a court ordered the reinstatement of corruption charges against Mr. Zuma for allegedly taking bribes in connection with a multibillion-dollar arms deal in 1999 when he was deputy president. Prosecutors had mysteriously dropped those charges in 2009, just weeks before the election that gave him the presidency.
And in a third scandal this year, Mr. Zuma has been accused of improper links to the Gupta business family, which has earned millions of dollars from contracts with state-owned companies. Some of his family members have held jobs in the Gupta business empire, and one cabinet minister said the Guptas were so powerful that they offered him a cabinet promotion.
How Zuma is hurting the economy
South Africa's currency plunged to record lows in December after Mr. Zuma fired the respected finance minister, Nhlanhla Nene. There were widespread reports that the Gupta family had demanded Mr. Nene's ouster because he was blocking their government deal-making. After a national uproar, Mr. Zuma was forced to dump his new finance minister and bring back a previous one, but the economic wreckage had been done.
Mr. Zuma has pledged to create millions of new jobs, but only the government sector has shown any significant increase in employment. Other sectors, including mining, have lost thousands of jobs, partly because of unfriendly labour policies. Mr. Zuma's economic mismanagement has pushed South Africa near to a "junk" rating from global credit agencies. And growth has slumped so badly that the country has fallen close to a recession, with the economy dropping by 1.2 per cent in the first quarter of this year.
The International Monetary Fund has slashed its forecast for South Africa, projecting growth of only 0.1 per cent this year. And the country's central bank is now forecasting zero growth this year.
The rising young opposition leaders
The biggest opposition party, the Democratic Alliance, is headed by 36-year-old Mmusi Maimane, an eloquent pastor from the sprawling township of Soweto. He is the first black leader in the history of the liberal opposition party, and he has brought new energy to the party, although the ANC accuses him of being a "puppet" for a "white" organization.
The other main opposition leader is 35-year-old Julius Malema, a leftist firebrand who heads the Economic Freedom Fighters, the third-biggest party in the country. With more than 1.1 million followers on Twitter and big crowds at his rallies, Mr. Malema is a shrewd populist who blames "white monopoly capital" – especially the banks and mining companies – for most of South Africa's problems.
Polls suggest that the DA could get 20 to 25 per cent of the vote, while the EFF could get 10 to 15 per cent. If they gain enough votes, they could form a coalition to oust the ANC in some cities.
South Africa's tumble on the world stage
Two decades ago, under Mr. Mandela's leadership, South Africa was seen as a moral beacon and an inspiration for the world because of its relatively peaceful liberation from apartheid. But under Mr. Zuma, the ANC has increasingly aligned itself with Russia and China, while abandoning its earlier support for global institutions such as the International Criminal Court.
The Zuma government has banned the Dalai Lama from visiting South Africa because of Beijing's opposition to the Tibetan leader. It is close to finalizing a murky nuclear-energy deal with Russia at a massive price. And it has even voted against human-rights resolutions at the United Nations.
If the local election results help to nudge Mr. Zuma toward retirement, South Africa could finally have a chance to begin restoring its global reputation.