South Africa's municipal elections: a referendum on ANC?

South Africa's ANC suffers election setback
South Africa's ANC suffers election setback

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South Africa's ANC suffers election setback 01:38

Story highlights

  • Some believe Zuma may be a liability for the ANC
  • The Democratic Alliance says ANC has turned its back on what Mandela fought for

Soweto, South Africa (CNN)The polls are officially open in South Africa as the country sets to vote in what could be one of its most pivotal elections in years.

The African National Congress (ANC), the party of Nelson Mandela which has been in charge in South Africa since the 1994 election, is facing its stiffest challenge in years.
    Though past municipal elections produced a yawn among some South Africans, Wednesday's election has become a crucial test of the ANC's grip on power and a referendum on the country's embattled president, Jacob Zuma.
    Almost every single local government seat is up for grabs, including urban powerhouses like Johannesburg and tiny municipalities across the country.
    South African voters stand in line at a polling station in Durban on Wednesday.
    More than 26 million people are registered to vote, and on Wednesday, they'll cast their ballots in. More than 61,000 candidates are competing for local government seats.
    And in a testament to the vibrancy of this democracy, every single seat is being contested.

    Playing the "Mandela" card

    The Harley Davidsons roar into a stadium as a drone camera flies over a sea of cheering blue, drum majorettes twirl their batons and a marching band blasts past, drowned out by the revving bike engines.
    It's the kind of colorful final election rally South Africans are accustomed to. But this is Soweto, once an absolute lock-in for the ANC -- and the thousands are cheering for the opposition.
    Several years ago, it would have been unthinkable -- now, even the opposition is playing the Mandela card.
    At the rally in Soweto, the Democratic Alliance's charismatic leader Mmusi Maimane, a former pastor, tapped into humble Soweto roots and called on the legacy of South Africa's most famous leader, Nelson Mandela.
    "The ANC has turned its back on everything Nelson Mandela fought for," he says, claiming that his party best represents Mandela's non-racial vision for South Africa.
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    The DA's move has sparked fury among the ANC leadership and supporters. Mandela was, after all, the leader of the ANC and the country's first democratically elected president.
    But the DA, which started as a liberal white party opposing the apartheid regime from within the racist system, has expanded its support among black South Africans.
    "The DA has been gifted in a sense because you have an ANC that is imploding, but they will have to show that they can exploit it," says Judith February, a governance expert.
    She says it's one thing to fill a stadium in Soweto, but quite another to change voters' minds when they face the ballot.
    At its own final rally, the party crammed two stadiums with supporters in Johannesburg as a show of force.
    The main event was, of course, President Zuma, in his ANC-branded leather jacket, leading the crowd in a rendition of "Umshini Wami" (which translates from Zulu as "bring me my machine gun").
    Despite a series of scandals, the party has stood by Zuma, but even some within the ANC admit that the President could be a liability.

    A referendum on Zuma

    The ANC believes it remains the most powerful political force in the country.
    The ruling party points to the strides it has made in improving the lives of South Africans since it came into power in 1994, calling this election an opportunity to "renew its mandate."
    At the last general election in 2014, the ANC took more than 60% of the vote. But in this election, polling has shown tight races in key urban centers such as Nelson Mandela Bay, Tshwane and Johannesburg.
    If the party loses any of these cities, or even loses significant support, it would be a severe rebuke.
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    Zuma has faced a series of corruptions scandals relating to expansive upgrades to his palatial private home at Nkandla and his murky relationships with alleged benefactors.
    Late last year, Zuma threw South Africa's currency into a tailspin when he abruptly fired his respected finance minister and replaced him with a party backbencher. Under intense pressure, Zuma buckled and re-appointed Pravin Gordhan, who had previously held the job.
    But the damage was done.
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    The ANC also faces a challenge from the left, the upstart Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF), led by a savvy former ANC youth leader named Julius Malema, who was expelled from Mandela's party for allegedly "sowing discontent."
    The EFF has tapped into a deep vein of discontent at the lack of economic transformation in the country and, with the group's trademark red berets and tactical use of the media, it has become a significant populist player.