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Officers of the South African Police Services intervene to break up scuffles between supporters of the African National Congress in Folweni township, south of Durban, on Oct. 9.RAJESH JANTILAL/AFP/Getty Images

Just three months after an eruption of violence that left some of its biggest cities in chaos, South Africa is gearing up for an election that is shaping up as the most divisive in its postapartheid history.

The campaign for the Nov. 1 local elections has already been marked by political killings, anti-foreigner rhetoric, racial tensions, factional feuding in the biggest parties and even the rise of a separatist party in Cape Town.

South Africa’s ruling party, the African National Congress, is in serious trouble and at risk of falling below 50 per cent in a nationwide election for the first time since the end of apartheid in 1994. It is heavily in debt, unable to pay its staff and riddled with corruption scandals and criminal charges. And it has been weakened by factional conflicts and a decline in public trust in the party.

Economic stagnation, rising unemployment and social unrest have further damaged the ANC. In July, more than 340 people died in a wave of rioting and looting in several South African cities, ignited by protests against the imprisonment of former president Jacob Zuma on contempt-of-court charges. Hundreds of stores and shopping malls were torched and ransacked.

Despite the arrest of a few suspected instigators in its ranks after the July violence, the pro-Zuma faction continues to be a loud voice in the ANC, stirring up bitter tensions within the party. While Mr. Zuma is on trial for corruption charges and faces dozens of graft allegations at a public inquiry, his supporters still remain influential, leaving the party damaged and adrift as it prepares for the Nov. 1 vote.

In an ominous sign of the ANC’s internal strife, the election campaign has been marred by political violence, including the deaths of several ANC members at party meetings or in targeted attacks. In a separate incident, an anti-corruption whistleblower was shot dead outside her home.

But the two biggest opposition parties – the liberal Democratic Alliance (DA) and the radical left-wing Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) – have failed to capitalize on the ANC’s woes. Both are increasingly perceived as limited to a narrow racial base, and polls show them far behind. Their lack of popularity has left the ANC as the election favourite by default, although it is likely to lose in several major cities and could be forced into coalitions in others.

Many South African voters, repelled by all of the parties, have responded by tuning out and disengaging. Despite a rising population and a voter-registration drive, South Africa will have about 500,000 fewer registered voters in the municipal elections, compared with the last national election two years ago, reports say. The decline in voter registration is a sign of widespread unhappiness with the options on the ballot, which could further reduce election turnout.

South Africa’s second-biggest political party, the DA, should be poised to make gains from the turmoil in the ANC. Instead, analysts say, it appears to be retreating to its traditional support base in the white, mixed-race and Indian communities. Polls show it in danger of slumping to third place nationally.

In 2019, the DA dumped its former leader, Mmusi Maimane, in a clear signal that it won’t try to expand its appeal to the Black community, who represent about 80 per cent of South Africa’s population. Its top leaders now are white, and it is widely perceived as a white-dominated party, despite its assertions to be non-racial.

Earlier this month, the DA made its most racially explosive move with a series of election banners praising the ethnically Asian-based vigilante groups that allegedly killed dozens of blacks while barring entrance to their neighbourhoods during the July unrest. “The ANC called you racists,” the banners read. “The DA calls you heroes.”

Many South Africans, including some DA officials, sharply criticized the banners. “What makes those posters dangerous is that they fan the flames of racial hatred,” wrote Jonathan Jansen, former vice-chancellor of the University of the Free State.

Lindiwe Mazibuko, the DA’s former parliamentary leader, was equally aghast. “Making political hay out of one of the most devastating waves of racially motivated violence in our country’s democratic history is not just cynical,” she said on Twitter. “It is despicable. Every single decision maker who approved that poster campaign should resign.”

DA leader John Steenhuisen defended the posters at first. But after two days of uproar, the DA apologized and promised to take down the banners.

In a country with a painful history of racism, it was long considered taboo for South Africa’s political parties in the postapartheid era to make racially based appeals. But the DA banners showed how this understanding is eroding.

Mr. Zuma and his faction had begun the trend by attacking “white monopoly capital” – a euphemism for white-owned businesses. And the third-biggest party, the EFF, routinely launches verbal volleys against whites and Asians, along with inflammatory rhetoric about seizing farmland and redistributing it.

Meanwhile, anti-immigrant sentiments are becoming more common, both on social media and in the rhetoric of new political parties such as Action SA, a well-financed party headed by former Johannesburg mayor Herman Mashaba.

Officially, Action SA is opposed only to “illegal immigration” – but Mr. Mashaba’s comments make it clear that he sees foreigners as a threat. “I don’t want to live in a country where foreign nationals come and open hairdressing salons and spaza shops [small informal shops],” he told Daily Maverick, a news website. “Those opportunities are for South Africans.”

The divisive mood is perhaps symbolized most vividly by another new party, the Cape Independence Party, which wants Western Cape province to separate from the rest of the country. The party is running candidates in all 116 wards in Cape Town.

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