South Africa elections 2024: Ten key people who could shape it

Elections in the country are won based on party popularity, but some personalities are driving the discourse.

Cyril Ramaphosa, Jacob Zuma, John Steenhuisen, Julius Malema
A combination image showing Cyril Ramaphosa, Jacob Zuma, John Steenhuisen, and Julius Malema [AP Photo, Reuters]

South Africans are gearing up for watershed general elections on May 29 that could see the ruling African National Congress (ANC) fail to clinch a majority for the first time in 30 years.

Some 28 million registered voters across nine provinces will troop out to vote for representatives to national and provincial parliaments. In turn, the winning parties will then name a president and cabinet.

The results of the vote are uncertain owing to the ANC’s shaky footing. Among the biggest issues at stake in Africa’s most advanced economy are especially high unemployment records, violent crime, deteriorating public infrastructure, and stark economic inequality.

The country’s polls are more about the parties, but several personalities dominate the election discourse. Here are 10 of the most important people to know:

1. Cyril Ramaphosa

Ramaphosa at a rally in May
South African President Cyril Ramaphosa waves to supporters of his ANC party during an election campaign in Kwaximba on April 20, 2024 [File: Rajesh Jantilal/AFP]

Current South African president and head of the ANC, Ramaphosa is gunning for his second and final election although his party’s standing is set to prove his biggest challenge.

The 71-year-old from Soweto was part of the premier Nelson Mandela-led ANC class that wrested South Africa from the apartheid government in 1994. He was hoping to succeed Mandela as president but when that didn’t happen, Ramaphosa left politics in 1996, going on to become a wildly successful businessman, dabbling in sectors from mining to food, and owning the McDonald’s franchise at one point. He returned to become deputy president in 2014 and then took over the presidency after former President Jacob Zuma was forced to step down in 2018.

Although seen as more level-headed than Zuma, Ramaphosa has suffered his share of image-denting scandals in office, most notably the 2022 Phala Phala debacle when he was accused of hiding $4m in laundered cash in his farmhouse.

But it’s the stubborn unemployment, persistent power and water cuts, and festering economic disparities plaguing the country that have most blighted his and the ANC’s record. Voter discontent is at its highest ever, and opinion polls from local broadcaster eNCA predict the party will gain only about 43.4 percent of the vote – down from 57.5 percent in the 2019 elections.

The ANC particularly faces key challenges in populous KwaZulu-Natal (KZN), set to be the most tightly contested province, and the home turf of former leader Zuma.

If the ANC fails to gain at least 50 percent, it may be forced into a coalition with smaller opposition parties for the first time in history. Still, Ramaphosa, who has retained a steady support base, is the favourite for president according to ANC’s internal polls.

2. John Steenhuisen

Steenhuisen at a rally
John Steenhuisen, leader of South Africa’s main opposition party the Democratic Alliance (DA), greets supporters in Soweto on May 9, 2024 [File: Phill Magakoe/AFP]

Head of the official opposition Democratic Alliance (DA), Steenhuisen, 48, is keen to sell his party as one that will “rescue South Africa” from the ANC.

Even so, many view the DA as a party that only champions the interests of the middle class, specifically those in its support base of the Western Cape, despite campaigning in a country where working-class Black people make up the bulk of the population.

Nevertheless, the DA remains the second-largest party after the ANC and opinion polls predict it could win 18.6 percent of the vote. Steenhuisen would likely clinch a top position in the case of a coalition government that involves the DA. He is credited with engineering the 2023 formation of the Multi-Party Charter (MPC), a coalition of about 11 opposition parties that have united to push out the ANC and currently hold 144 of 400 parliament seats.

One tricky question facing the coalition, though, is who will be its face. Steenhuisen – and indeed much of the DA leadership – is white. That is a sore topic for a country that experienced brutal apartheid rule for decades.

The DA has also struggled to rally support from Black voters: it opposes policies such as workplace race quotas introduced by Ramaphosa’s government last year to close economic gaps that have seen Black people perpetually disadvantaged. This is why some criticise Steenhuisen and the DA caucus for being unaware of the conditions of the majority of South Africans. Steenhuisen himself has deflected accusations of representing an advantaged minority by saying South Africans are looking for competence.

3. Jacob Zuma

Jacob Zuma
Former South African President Jacob Zuma greets uMkhonto we Sizwe (MK) party supporters at Orlando stadium in Soweto on May 18, 2024 [File: Jerome Dalay/AP]

Former President Zuma is the wildcard element in this election. He was set to run for parliament but was kicked off the candidate list for the new uMkhonto we Sizwe (MK) party by a last-minute court decision because of a 2021 conviction. Now, he’s fielding a stand-in, testing a new role as kingmaker.

A proverbial cat with nine lives whose political career seems unbreakable despite serious corruption scandals, 82-year-old Zuma has long been a divisive figure.

He is seen by some as a liberator and saviour for the poor, owing to his decades of political experience, his activism during apartheid, and his persona as a “man of the people”. For others, he embodies the worst of government corruption, as a leader who was at the helm of some of the biggest corruption or “state capture” events in the country that eventually forced him to resign in 2018.

Now, Zuma is back, determined to be a thorn in the side of the ANC, with which he has since fallen out. He ditched the party last year to back the newly formed MK party. Ongama Mtimka, a politics and history lecturer at Nelson Mandela University, said Zuma’s primary objective is to frustrate the ANC and his successor, who he has clashed with. “He is a very vindictive politician and I think he wants to show President Ramaphosa that he can bring a formidable challenge and frustrate Ramaphosa and the ANC,” he said.

With the MK, Zuma is looking to wrest power from the ANC, if not nationally, then at least to split the ANC’s votes in his home province of KZN. The latest polls show MK winning a significant 14.4 percent of the vote to become the third biggest political force in South Africa. It’s an impressive feat for a party that was formed last year. Zuma is expected to present a candidate from the party’s little-known members to be his stand-in. Among the names that could come up is his daughter, 41-year-old Duduzile Zuma-Sambudla.

4. Julius Malema

Malema at a rally
Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) leader Julius Malema addresses his supporters in Hamanskraal on May 1, 2024 [File: Phill Magakoe/AFP]

Malema is the founder of the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF), an anti-establishment, Marxist, Pan-Africanist party that keeps a sharp focus on the rights of Black South Africans and accuses the ANC of failing to cater to that core population. Malema is particularly controversial for his radical, at times violent political statements, and for pushing policies seeking to redistribute land owned by the white minority to Black people or convert lucrative privately-owned mines to government property. He has also pushed Pan-African policies, advocating for Swahili as a common African language.

The 43-year-old has said he started in politics as a teenager before rising to become the ANC’s Youth League leader in 2008, a position that made him popular nationwide. He was once a Zuma ally, but he was expelled from the ANC in 2012 after he fell out with the then-president and other party members. He went on to create the EFF the next year, and its members are now hard to miss in the Parliament of South Africa thanks to their red berets and red boiler suits that are a nod to the uniforms labourers wear. Malema has been accused of using hate speech directed at the country’s white population, but he continues to appeal to young people at home and across the continent.

The EFF won 44 parliament seats in 2019 and was the third-biggest party then. Opinion polls this time, however, predict Zuma’s MK displacing EFF to fourth place. The party is expected to win 11.4 percent of the vote.

5. Velenkosini Hlabisa

Hlabisa is the president of the Inkatha Freedom Party (IFP), which is trailing behind the EFF and is predicted to clinch 3.1 percent of the vote.

The party, which pushes more autonomy for traditional leaders, has previously had little nationwide success, as it is mainly active in KZN and receives most of its support from ethnic Zulus.

The 2019 parliamentary elections saw it move in fourth place after the EFF with 3.38 percent of the vote and 14 parliament seats.

The IFP is also a part of the MPC coalition and is the second-biggest party in the group after the DA. A coalition government could see Hlabisa, a teacher and one-time municipal councillor for his hometown of Hlabisa in KZN, secure a top cabinet post in the next government.

6. Raymond Zondo

Zondo and president Ramaphosa
President Ramaphosa receives the final report of a judicial investigation into corruption from Chief Justice Raymond Zondo, left, at the Union Buildings in Pretoria on June 22, 2022 [File: Themba Hadebe/AP]

As Chief Justice of South Africa, Zondo could prove crucial in legal tussles that could follow the elections – especially in the case of a first-time coalition government.

Already, court challenges abound in the lead-up to the vote, especially between the ANC and Zuma’s MK.

Zondo is most notably remembered for chairing the 2018 Commission of Inquiry that investigated allegations of corruption under former President Zuma – later known as the Zondo Commission.

Zondo heads the Constitutional Court – the highest court in the land, whose rulings are final. It’s the same court that ruled out Zuma as a candidate for the elections this week.

Zondo is set to retire in August, and will likely pass on the baton to Deputy Chief Justice Mandisa Muriel Lindelwa Maya.

7. Mosotho Moepya and Sy Mamabolo

Moepya is the chairperson of the independent Electoral Commission of South Africa (IEC), while Mamabolo is the chief electoral officer.

Electoral fraud is not a major concern, but it is a worry.

South Africa has a fairly robust voting and counting system, but there were a handful of double-vote cases in the 2019 elections, and EFF’s Malema accused the ANC of voter fraud in some parts of the country at the time.

This week, Moepya inaugurated a national results centre in Gauteng province and promised the IEC will ensure a smooth vote. No ballots will be counted outside of the voting zones, Moepya promised, in one measure to avoid fraud.

8. Paul Mashatile

Mashatile at state of the nation address
South Africa’s Deputy President Paul Mashatile, centre, at Cape Town City Hall on February 8, 2024 [File: Rodger Bosch/AP]

Deputy president of the ANC and South Africa, Mashatile is in line to potentially become the next president – if the party manages to retain the majority vote in these elections.

The politician was once a student activist and a fighter for the ANC during apartheid, a minister, and a former premier of Gauteng – the most populous province, which houses Johannesburg and Pretoria.

The ANC has traditionally presented its party president as the head of state. A new party leader is elected every five years, but the ANC’s internal elections schedule does not align with the national presidential term. That means even if the ANC wins this election, Ramaphosa will cease to be party president – and perhaps South Africa’s president – before the next general elections in 2029, paving the way for Mashatile to become head of state.

9. Pieter Groenewald

Groenewald is the leader of the fringe Freedom Front Plus (FF Plus), a right-wing party that is advocating for the rights of the Afrikaner population – in the form of an independent state within South Africa.

The party surprised in the 2019 elections when, under Groenewald, it managed to clinch 2.38 percent of the vote and 10 parliament seats, up from 0.9 percent in the 2014 elections. Its strongholds are in the Western Cape and North West provinces.

Groenewald and other party leaders have in recent campaigns attempted to shift from the party’s rightist beginnings, pushing instead a party that seeks to reach voters across ethnicities.

10. Naledi Pandor

Pandor at the ICJ
South Africa’s Foreign Minister Naledi Pandor, centre, attends the session of the International Court of Justice in The Hague, Netherlands on January 26, 2024 [File: Patrick Post/AP]

Foreign Minister Pandor shot into the global limelight as she championed South Africa’s support for the Palestinian cause and led a historic genocide case against Israel at the International Court of Justice (ICJ).

The war in Gaza has come to dominate South African politics, becoming the single most important foreign affairs issue on the ballot, and the ANC – through Pandor – has performed well on that point, many analysts point out. Other parties like the DA have been lukewarm on the issue, while the FF Plus has backed Israel. The EFF, like the ANC, has supported the Palestinians.

Pandor has also gained attention for staunchly positioning South Africa as pro-Russia, pro-China, and pro-BRICS while refusing to pander to the United States and other Western countries even at the risk of economic sanctions. Earlier reports speculated Pandor could be the ANC’s Western Cape premier candidate, although local media report Pandor has rejected that proposal.

Regardless, the minister has been on the campaign trail, appealing especially to Muslim communities to vote ANC because of its actions on the Palestinian cause, which she said showcases South Africa’s “moral authority” on the world stage.

Source: Al Jazeera