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South Africa faces most closely contested election in its 25 years as a democracy

  • Video report by ITV News Africa Correspondent John Ray

A quarter of a century since the dawn of their democratic age, South Africans head to the polls on Tuesday in what’s likely to be the most closely contested election since Nelson Mandela was president.

A picture of the great man is stitched into the shirt worn by his successor, Cyril Ramaphosa, when we catch up with him on the campaign trail.

It’s not just that the ANC is still trading on Mandela’s near saint like status. Or that Ramaphosa was long ago Madiba’s chosen heir. Though both help.

He’s trying to remind voters that underneath the dark web of corruption scandals that so entangle this nation’s politics, is a genuine liberation movement with a sense of right and wrong.

It’s a tough message to sell to a sceptical public.

I ask Ramaphosa if the party is irredeemably tarnished.

"No,’" Ramaphosa shoots back.

"All manner of horrible things were done in the past but in a way the ANC is going through a cathartic process of bearing its soul of owing up to all the things that were done wrongly but out of that we face a positive prospect of renewal."

It’s 18 months since he replaced Jacob Zuma as ANC leader and instituted a series of public hearings into the massive misuse of state finances.

Zuma now faces 16 charges of corruption, money laundering and racketeering. Some of the former president’s closest allies, some still holding top positions in the party, have been implicated.

But no-one has been charged and several are even candidates for parliament and seats in government.

So why hasn’t Ramaphosa sacked them? Or put them in jail?

‘"We live in a country that is underpinned by law and democracy," he tells me.

"So in the ANC those people were elected to be on the list. At the same if anyone has done anything that it wrong, the rule of law kicks in and they will be dealt with without fear or favour or prejudice that I can assure you.

"It will happen; whoever they are."

Recent weeks have witnessed many protests in South Africa ahead of the election. Credit: ITV News

Some analysts believe a big win will empower Ramaphosa to deal more swiftly with the bad guys. But the polls suggest a much closer run thing.

We visit the township of Atteridgeville, that sprawls over the hills west of the capital, Pretoria.

This vast community of tin roofed shacks, muddy streets and market stalls is an ANC heartland.

But it’s getting harder to keep the faith; when so little has changed, and where poverty and unemployment are dismal facts of everyday life.

Street vendor Abigail says she doesn't have faith in the current president to improve her life. Credit: ITV News

At her street-corner takeaway stall, Abigail Busi Dhliwayo slices potatoes, and takes chunks out of the ANC’s reputation.

"I’ll give them two out of ten," she tells me, complaining of the intermittent power and water.

Does she trust Ramaphosa?

"Ah, he’s a billionaire, and he’ll look after the billionaires," she says.

A life-long ANC supporter, Abigail is switching allegiance.

Most likely to the EFF, a left-wing rival that offers up populist slogans – land and jobs – as answers to South Africa’s complex problems.

As we part ways with the president’s entourage, he comes over to tell me "hope is coming back". He’s ever the optimist.

If the ANC wins, as most expect it to do, it will be because Ramaphosa is much more popular than the party he leads. He represents, many believe, the last, best chance for South Africa to get it right.

But they’ll be no honeymoon, just a long struggle with Zuma’s old cronies and the country’s wearyingly familar economic and social ills. These days, carrying the banner of Mandela into battle goes only so far.