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Campaigning has already begun in South Africa - so who are the hopefuls for 2014?

Next year's election is likely to be the most difficult the governing ANC has fought since it was first elected in 1994.

Julius Malema.
Julius Malema, who was expelled from the ANC in 2012, is proving popular with young voters. Photograph: Getty Images.

Campaigning for the election – expected to be called for May next year – is already well under way. It will be the most difficult the ANC has fought since winning power in 1994. The cards would seem stacked against the party.

President Jacob Zuma, who still has allegations of corruption hanging over him dating back to the country’s notorious arms deal, is facing embarrassing revelations concerning his luxury villa in Kwa-Zulu Natal. The threat comes from Thuli Madonsela, the Public Protector – one of several positions established under the constitution to guard the country’s new democracy.

Despite relentless government pressure, Ms Madonsela is insisting on publishing her investigation into the R206 (£13 million) million security upgrade for the complex at Nkandla. So worried is the government about just what the report may contain that they threatened to use apartheid-era legislation to prosecute anyone who published photographs of the complex. Newspaper editors responded by defiantly rejecting the advice.

While Nkandla, and President Zuma’s lack of popular appeal are a concern, the ANC has more pressing worries. Top of its list is the planned introduction of tolls on major roads on 3 December. The idea is universally loathed.  Everyone from small businesses to the Cosatu trade union movement has resisted their introduction. “This is a serious betrayal of workers and their trust,” complained Dumisani Dakile, Cosatu secretary in the Johannesburg area. “We feel that the government is not taking us seriously.”

But the union movement, until recently among the ANC’s most staunch supporters, is badly divided. The Cosatu general secretary, Zwelenzima Vavi, was suspended from his position in August, for an affair with a young woman in the movement’s headquarters, as well as allegations of financial impropriety. The claims are being investigated, but there is a strong suspicion that Vavi’s powerful attacks on corruption inside government may have triggered his downfall. Vavi, who is popular with the union rank and file, believes the attack was politically motivate. “There are people who think that Cosatu must just be a tool that can only be used to catch votes, even if that is not advancing the interest of the workers,” Vavi warns.

The tripartite alliance which links the Cosatu unions with the ANC and the South African Communist Party looks increasingly fragile. Leaders of the metalworkers union, Numsa, are reported to be threatening to leave the alliance and dissuade their members from voting for the ruling party next year. The union’s general secretary, Irvin Jim, has argued in a leaked paper that the time has come to seek an alternative to the ANC.

With his allies threatening to desert him, Jacob Zuma is facing a rising challenge from both left and right. Julius Malema, who led the party’s youth league was expelled from the ANC in April last year. He has re-emerged as ‘Commander-in-Chief’ of a new party, the Economic Freedom Fighters. No-one knows just how many votes Malema will take from his old party, but an internal ANC survey is reported to have warned that he is increasingly popular with young people.

Whether popularity turns into votes is, of course, quite another issue since young South Africans may not register: even if they do they may not turn out to vote. The same cannot be said for the growing black middle class, whose votes are being wooed by all concerned. Agang – the party newly founded by the former World Bank Managing Director, Mamphela Ramphele – is said to be winning some middle class support.

The ANC is dismissive of her chances, but is facing another challenge from the official opposition, the Democratic Alliance. The DA was born out of the liberal, anti-apartheid Progressive Party. Led by Helen Zille, it is attempting to shed its image as a party of white and Coloured (or mixed race) voters. The DA already controls the Western Cape, but is setting its sights on Gauteng – the area around Johannesburg.

The party’s challenge is led by Mmusi Maimane, a personable young politician already being referred to in the press as the ‘Obama of Soweto’. Maimane has borrowed some Obama tactics.  His campaign uses the slogan, “We can win.” DA posters have a stylised drawing of Maimane’s face emblazoned with the word “Believe,” reminiscent of Obama's iconic “Hope” poster in 2008.

Opinion polls suggest that the ANC’s vote could decline by as much as ten per cent. The party will win 56.2 per cent of the votes, down from 65.9% in 2009, Nomura South Africa predicted in August. They suggest the DA share of the poll will rise from 16.7 per cent to 27 per cent percent and predicts a 6 per cent share for Agang and 4 per cent for Malema’s Economic Freedom Fighters.

These are – of course – just predictions and much will happen before polling day. President Zuma is an extremely sharp politician and the ANC has deep roots within the black community. The state-broadcaster, the SABC, with its pro-ANC bias, has a unique ability to use radio to reach rural areas that other parties cannot match.

And there is one imponderable, which could change the course of entire election: the fate of Nelson Mandela.  Should he die during the campaign the reaction would be colossal and instantaneous.  All party politics would end to be replaced by a state funeral. There would be universal grief and wall-to-wall coverage across the media. In the anguish at his loss there is little question as to the impact this shattering event would have on popular sentiment. The South African public would turn to the party whose card Mandela carried to his death - the ANC.