The ANC should easily extend its two-decade rule when South Africa goes to the polls on May 7, despite rising discontent among the party's poverty-stricken grassroots supporters.
President Jacob Zuma has lost popularity amid allegations of using public funds for private purposes, and the announcement of the election date came as violent demonstrations by residents in largely black townships against poor government service delivery spread.
The ANC should retain the die-hard loyalty of the older generation, whose memories of the apartheid system that discriminated against non-whites remain fresh. This should enable the ANC to win the vote with a comfortable majority, giving Zuma another five-year term in office.
But the movement that has been in power since the end of white minority rule in 1994 faces charges of largely failing to lift millions of black citizens out of grinding poverty.
Underscoring the volatile atmosphere that has engulfed several townships, hundreds of youths danced and sang in Hebron about 30km north of Pretoria on Friday, ripping out street signs, lighting tyre barricades and littering roads with boulders and rubble.
"People are never going to vote for the ANC because they are so angry," said Jerry Tlou (26) outside a Pakistani-owned general store in Hebron, which rioters had just looted.
"The ANC makes all these promises, but they can't deliver. No water, no electricity, they can't fix the roads. I am going to vote for the DA," said Tlou, who is unemployed.
National unemployment is at around 25% and growth in South Africa – Africa's biggest economy – slowed sharply to about 2% last year, disrupted by the global slowdown and labour unrest that has frequently halted production in the mainstay mining and auto sectors.
The ANC will probably fail to attract many of the born-free voters (South Africans born after the end of apartheid) as young black people are not overly impressed by its liberation movement credentials.
The Democratic Alliance's drive to shed its image as a party that champions mainly white interests suffered a blow when the deal collapsed to merge with Agang and make prominent anti-apartheid activist Mamphela Ramphele the party's first black presidential candidate.
As of Friday, 24-million South Africans had registered to vote on May 7.
"We have worked hard to build a peaceful and stable South Africa from the ruins of apartheid violence, divisions and hatred," Zuma said when announcing the election date. "Let us make this a vibrant, robust, exciting, peaceful and most successful election, and maintain our track record of successful elections."
But the ANC's credibility has been undermined by its management of the economy and its inability to soothe tensions in the platinum belt, where miners are angry about their lack of economic progress two decades after the end of apartheid.
The radical Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF), led by expelled former ANC youth leader Julius Malema, has been tapping into the simmering discontent to advocate nationalisation of mines and the seizure of white-owned land.
Formed in 2013, the EFF is the latest in a scattering of new political groupings that have emerged to try to challenge the ANC. Although still young, the party is gaining traction with young South Africans who often sport red T-shirts and berets, like Malema, whose red beret has "Commander-in-Chief" embroidered on it.
The ANC will probably win just 56.2% of the vote this time compared with 65.9% in the previous election in 2009, said Nomura International analyst Peter Attard Montalto.
"Demographics are nibbling away at the 'liberation debt' owed to the ANC combined with increasing dissatisfaction with delivery and new choices of party," said Montalto. – Reuters