It is a once-in-a-generation event, if that, for a nation to elect its Messiah. In 2008, Barack Obama was portrayed as something close for US voters. In 1994 in South Africa, Nelson Mandela truly was. But messiahs of the ballot box tend to have a fatal flaw. They come with a level of hope and expectation that may never be delivered.
Twenty years on, South Africa will again elect the African National Congress, the party of liberation, but for the first time, the liberator is not around, and times have changed. Even though the result is all but beyond doubt – President Jacob Zuma’s party will almost certainly again poll above 60 per cent – this may yet be the election where the ANC is forced to get real.
Two decades after apartheid, the party finds itself in charge of a failing education system, and an economy blighted by stubbornly high levels of unemployment. The rise of a black middle class cannot hide the poverty that remains in much of the country. Mr Zuma, once an inmate on Robben Island with Mr Mandela, can seemingly go nowhere without being roundly booed – not even his former friend’s memorial service.
This was the first time that members of South Africa’s “Born Free” generation – the name given to those born after 1994 – were eligible to vote, yet only around 30 per cent registered to do so. The familiar stories of electoral malpractice have surfaced but their impact on the result is minimal. Where voting allegiances have switched, for the most part it will have been between one small opposition party and another. The former ANC youth leader Julius Malema’s highly vocal and visible Economic Freedom Fighters party is likely to have polled less than a similar group, the Congress of the People, did last time around.
But even a few percentage points dropped for the ANC may ring alarm bells. It cannot trade on its liberating reputation forever. Millions around the country want no more from their government than flushing toilets.
If President Zuma’s government continues to act largely in its own self-interest, rather than addressing voters’ needs, it has every reason to expect a more serious, worker-led threat to its electoral hegemony in five years’ time.