There is little doubt that the African National Congress will form the next government. The party founded by Nelson Mandela has ruled uninterrupted since the end of apartheid rule in 1994, winning with comfortable margins.
However, its margin of victory is at stake. Party leader Cyril Ramaphosa, who became the country’s fourth black president in February last year "needs to eclipse 62 percent" to keep Zuma loyalists and far-left populists within the party at bay, explains correspondent Jean-Jacques Cornish.
"If he doesn’t make 62 percent, which is what Jacob Zuma did last time round, he’s going to be asked why it was so important to get rid of Jacob Zuma and ruin the party, if he hasn’t been able to achieve a better result," he told RFI.
Zuma was ousted by the ANC in February 2018 amid allegations of cronyism and graft. He now faces 700 counts of corruption. As his successor, Ramaphosa has vowed to clean up the party and revive the economy, but he may have little room to manoeuvre if the ANC lose Gauteng, home to the administrative capital Pretoria, as some opinion polls indicate they might. Other polls show the ruling party at risk of falling below 50 percent in the key province of KwaZulu Natal.
"If they lose Gauteng, having already lost the Western Cape – the second richest province – to the opposition Democratic Alliance party, the ANC would be running the country on the rural vote and the poor urban areas. That would make a big difference in the kind of job he is able to do," comments Cornish.
If the ANC does badly, it could undermine Ramaphosa’s ability to reverse the damage done by his predecessor, whose links to the powerful Gupta family, accused of state capture and determining who should be in government, are still very much fresh in people’s minds.
"Corruption is a major issue," comments political analyst Joseph Ochieno.
"Ramaphosa needs to be able to prove himself, and to do that, ensure no more major scandals come out. And if he’s able to work with the majority they’re almost certain to obtain in parliament, he needs to ensure that those people who are accused of corruption are brought to book," he told RFI.
So far no one has been punished. A point seized upon by the main opposition party, the Democratic Alliance, which accuses Ramaphosa of doing little to halt the "ten lost years of corruption" under Zuma when he was vice-president.
"The fact is that he has a bunch of rogues associated with the ANC party that he’s been unable thus far to get rid of," explains Cornish.
This notwithstanding, the Democratic Alliance (DA) is "not a serious opponent" to the ANC reckons for his part Ochieno. "They are still perceived as a white party backing the interests of the elites," he told RFI.
Cornish nevertheless points to the fact that the DA scored 22 percent in the 2014 election and given that the white electorate is only 8 percent, "it clearly can’t be a white only party."
Economic inequality, political apathy
The third party in the political race is the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF). They scored 6 percent in the last race and are poised to get over 10 percent this time round according to polls.
Led by Julius Malema – the former head of the ANC’s youth league – the EFF is the only party that "speaks to the heart" of what these elections are about, and that is "the question of economic disparity and land", according to Ochieno. "It is still the white establishment who control up to 70 percent of the economy, that is unsustainable", he said.
South Africa remains the most unequal country in the world according to the World Bank, and given the legacy of the apartheid, the poor are almost exclusively black. The unemployment rate for black South Africans is over 30 percent; for white South Africans, it’s only 8 percent.
Over 26 million people are registered to vote but at least 10 million eligible voters haven’t done so amid growing political apathy.
"The youth believe that protest action is more effective than voting," explains Cornish, saying that people in South Africa do not change party allegiances.
"When they are unhappy, and there are vast numbers who are unhappy, they don’t vote. They simply boycott the election."