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A child kicks a football in front of a mural of Nelson Mandela, in Soweto, South Africa, as the country celebrates Freedom Day on April 27. (AP Photo)A child kicks a football in front of a mural of Nelson Mandela, in Soweto, South Africa, as the country celebrates Freedom Day on April 27. (AP Photo)

South Africa celebrated 30 years of democracy and the end of the apartheid state on April 27. Just over a month after this anniversary, on May 29, the country will go to the polls for what will be perhaps the most important election since the dawn of democracy in South Africa.

Polls abound, and the political ground keeps shifting, but one thing is sure: South Africa is likely to experience a significant political realignment.

The country’s ruling African National Congress—which has been in power since the beginning of the democratic dispensation—seems poised to earn less than 50 percent of the vote for the first time since it came to power.

Many loyal A.N.C. voters are fed up with the party and want to hold it accountable for corruption and the deteriorating economy. Many South Africans, disenfranchised by poverty and unemployment, also believe the nation has allowed too many migrant workers into the country, mainly from neighboring Zimbabwe. New parties have emerged this year, and the country’s politics has become much more competitive in the run-up to the election, which may be the most democratic in 30 years.

In the most likely scenario after the elections, the A.N.C. will have to govern as part of a coalition with other parties. That means opposition parties will play a much more significant role in shaping South Africa’s political future. That may mean a reassessment of South Africa’s relationship with global powers like Russia and China.

Disgraced former A.N.C. leader and former president Jacob Zuma has returned to the political scene, this time as leader of a new political party, uMkhonto we Sizwe. (Known by the abbreviation MK, the party, “Spear of the Nation,” has adopted the name of the former armed wing of the A.N.C.)

Mr. Zuma has faced a barrage of criminal corruption charges since he was forced to resign from the presidency in 2018. In 2021, he was sentenced to 15 months in prison for defying a court order to appear before a judicial commission probing corruption allegations in government and state-owned companies during his presidential term. He was released on medical parole before completing his sentence.

On April 9, South Africa’s electoral court ruled that Mr. Zuma could stand for a seat in Parliament despite a provision in the constitution that bars candidates who have received a prison sentence that is 12 months or longer from participating in elections. Now, some polls suggest MK could become the country’s third largest party after next month’s election.

Mr. Zuma’s successor, Cyril Ramaphosa, promised the country “a new dawn” when he came into power.

Many hoped that Mr. Ramaphosa would deal uncompromisingly with corruption and begin to steer the country back on track. But many South Africans believe Mr. Rampahosa has not only failed to live up to his commitments on corruption but has been unable to restore the nation’s declining economy and confront other major problems, including high unemployment, violent crime and a breakdown in social cohesion.

For many in South Africa, the burning question of the upcoming elections is how the A.N.C., the midwife of freedom and justice in South Africa, could become so bedeviled by power struggles and the pursuit of personal enrichment that it could not effectively lead the nation. After so many of its members made the ultimate sacrifice in the fight for freedom, how could the A.N.C. abandon the people it fought for?

The A.N.C.’s failure is reflected not only by its declining electoral support but also by its growing inability to govern. South Africa has been suffering an economic free fall. High youth unemployment, crime, lawlessness and a widespread failure to deliver essential services are all signs of the government’s malperformance.

One of the most significant signs of incapacity has been the failure of the state-managed electricity producer, Eskom, to meet the country’s needs. For over 10 years, people and industry have regularly endured power rationing—“load-shedding”—that brought economic activity and people’s lives to a standstill.

Many other state-owned enterprises, like the national rail service and the national airline, have been brought to their knees by corruption. Essential services need to be improved in many parts of the country (often seen more starkly in small towns and rural areas), and basic services like health care and water are also failing. For many poor South Africans, the state bureaucracy led by the A.N.C. has stunted the hope of a better future.

At the root of many of the A.N.C.’s problems has been ceaseless infighting, corruption and so-called “cadre deployment”—appointing politically connected operatives to crucial civic positions regardless of competence. The party, focused solely on its internal struggles, has neglected to rule. The quality of leadership once maintained by the liberation movement through people like Oliver Tambo and Nelson Mandela—the country’s first democratically elected president and a democratic icon for the world—has significantly declined.

Thabo Mbeki, who followed Mr. Mandela as president, had been Mandela’s deputy and served from 1999 to 2008. Mr. Mbeki’s economic policies resulted in some growth, and his African agenda forged multinational relationships on the continent during his tenure.

But Mr. Mbeki failed to deal adequately with the H.I.V./AIDS crisis, resisting the deployment of life-saving assistance to primarily poor South Africans who had contracted the virus. Mr. Mbeki resigned as president at the request of the A.N.C. in 2008.

The A.N.C. next allowed Mr. Zuma, even then a compromised man, to take the reins of the party and the country. At the time, Mr. Zuma faced corruption charges over an arms deal with the French company Thales. Also accused of rape, he was acquitted in 2006, claiming that the relationship in question had been consensual.

In his nine years as president, Mr. Zuma steadily dismantled some of the best-functioning state-owned industries and deployed cronies to manage state resources, party hacks who treated the country’s treasury as their private savings account. Millions of dollars in state funds remain unaccounted for from Mr. Zuma’s tenure.

In 2016 it was revealed that Mr. Zuma was in a corrupt relationship with an Indian business family, the Guptas. Critics allege that Mr. Zuma allowed the Gupta family to dictate political appointments, an allegation he denies. Even when the then deputy minister of finance, Mcebisi Jonas, created shock waves by publicly alleging that the Guptas had met with him behind closed doors to offer him the position of minister of finance, the A.N.C. chose to protect Mr. Zuma.

Eventually, the A.N.C. pressed Mr. Zuma to leave office, clearing the way for his deputy, Mr. Ramaphosa, to become president. In addition to dissatisfaction with his economic policies, many South Africans have grown concerned about Mr. Ramaphosa’s diminishing commitment to human rights and democracy, partly because of the governing party’s close ties with authoritarian states like Russia and China.

Despite an explicit constitutional provision for multiparty democracy and rotation of leadership, opposition parties in South Africa have had trouble convincing the electorate to let them govern. But in March, the country’s Independent Electoral Commission announced that 52 parties had registered to contest the national election in 2024.

The country’s largest opposition party is the Democratic Alliance, which received 20 percent of the vote in 2019. The second largest is the Economic Freedom Fighters (headed by the controversial former chair of the A.N.C. youth league, Julius Malema), which received 10 percent of the vote in 2019. The A.N.C. got 57 percent of the vote that year, but current polls predict that it will receive just 37 percent of the vote this time.

That means it will be forced into a coalition with other parties. But even this possible outcome is not a sure thing, because the South African Parliament elects the president. That means the composition of the Parliament will be crucial in determining who rules.

Although South Africa’s newly emerging political parties are unlikely to replace any of the current top three, the fact that the A.N.C. appears unlikely to capture a majority in Parliament this election will have a significant impact. A particular wild card in the next election is the re-emergence of Mr. Zuma. His MK party might attract disaffected A.N.C. voters who believe he was unfairly removed from office and may rejoin the political process this election cycle to support the former president.

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