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For now, the ANC’s support is holding steady — but that may not last. Here’s why.

- July 12, 2017
Tens of thousands of South Africans prepare to march against President Jacob Zuma in Pretoria on April 12, Zuma’s 75th birthday. (AFP/Getty Images)

The African National Congress has governed South Africa for nearly 25 years. But over the past months, many observers have been asking whether its days are numbered, as the party has been damaged by infighting, corruption allegations and poor economic performance.

New survey evidence shows that — despite the turmoil — public support for the ANC hasn’t changed. What’s more, those who don’t support the ANC are so politically fragmented that there’s no credible challenger on the horizon. But a few demographic trends suggest that the ANC will be increasingly vulnerable in years to come.

The ANC is in turmoil — and that’s affecting the economy

Questions about the ANC’s vulnerability began soon after the party had its poorest showing ever in the August 2016 municipal elections. This month, the party held its first conference since then. Many delegates boycotted the event to show their opposition to President Jacob Zuma, who currently has the lowest approval rating of any post-apartheid president. A majority of ANC members want him to resign, especially since Zuma purged ministers who opposed him from his Cabinet in late March — prompting some of the largest protests since the end of apartheid.

The political instability weakened South Africa’s already fragile economy. Credit agencies immediately downgraded South Africa’s bonds to “junk” status. Recently, the country’s economy went back into a recession. Unemployment rates have surpassed 25 percent.

Nevertheless, my research finds that the public still supports the ANC

In a nationally representative survey fielded over the past six months, I asked respondents whether they considered themselves supporters of the ANC. The household survey was conducted by Ipsos South Africa, in two waves. The first surveys were done after the 2016 municipal elections, between Oct. 25 and Dec. 7, 2016. The second wave was conducted after the controversial Cabinet reshuffle, between April 21 and May 22.

Despite what many expected, the ANC did not lose any support during this period.

“Do you consider yourself a supporter of the ANC?”

That suggests two things. First, infighting hasn’t damaged the ANC’s public support. Second, dominant parties’ profound links with voters — especially with parties deeply associated with liberation — can hold support steady despite unpopular leadership and poor economic performance.

But that might be because the political opposition is so fragmented

Around 40 percent of South Africans say they do not support the ANC — but they have not united around any one opposition party. There are currently 12 opposition parties in the legislature. More than 200 parties received votes in the recent municipal elections. The ANC’s most significant rival is the Democratic Alliance, a centrist, historically white party. But it came in more than 25 points behind the ANC in the last municipal elections.

These opposition parties would have to form alliances to challenge the ANC — but such coalitions haven’t done well in South Africa. The two main opposition parties, the DA and the Economic Freedom Fighters, are far apart ideologically. The EFF is a leftist party that broke away from the ANC Youth League. The DA currently governs some of South Africa’s largest municipalities — including Johannesburg, Tshwane (which includes the capital Pretoria), and Nelson Mandela Bay — with support from the EFF. But these arrangements have been unstable. It’s not at all clear that these the two parties could coordinate an election campaign or rule the country in coalition.

These three demographic trends suggest that the ANC’s power may decline

Only 41 percent of respondents under age 24 (the so-called born-free generation) currently say they support the ANC, the lowest rate of any age group — and of course, the proportion of voters who were “born free” will only increase in coming years. Similarly, only about 40 percent of metro areas’ voters support the ANC — which is troubling for the ANC, since South Africa’s urban population has been increasing steadily for the past 20 years.

Meanwhile, only around 39 percent of voters who aren’t working or don’t have a source of income support the ANC. If the party can’t pull the country out of recession and boost employment, it may well be in trouble.

In other words, the ANC may have been invulnerable up to now — but that’s unlikely to last forever.

Grant Buckles is a PhD candidate in political science at Emory University. Find him on Twitter @grantbuckles.

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