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Roger Jardine was a famed anti-apartheid activist before building a business career and leading South Africa’s largest bank. But as he took to the stage of a community centre in a Johannesburg suburb last month he embodied another role: his country’s would-be political saviour.

The former FirstRand chair was cheered on by supporters of his new Change Starts Now movement as he invoked South Africa’s first democratic elections nearly 30 years ago to explain why he was adding to the crowded field vying to end the long rule of the African National Congress this year.

“This present moment feels like a hinge of history . . . to keep the promise we all made in 1994,” Jardine said as he prepared the ground for a general election predicted for May in which President Cyril Ramaphosa’s party is in danger of losing its majority for the first time.

Jardine’s event took place in Riverlea, the suburb where he grew up which is now beset by poverty, crime and illegal mining. Such failures there and across South Africa are visible signs of the fraying state and stagnant economy that underlined why many once-loyal ANC voters are disaffected, and why some in the business community are openly backing alternatives.

Roger Jardine has set up the Change Starts Now movement, rather than joining an existing party

Murphy Morobe, a former party veteran and non-executive director at investment company Remgro, said the ANC seemed to be “overcome by the extent and degree of the dysfunctionality it has presided over”.

But Jardine’s decision to set up his own movement, rather than join one of the growing number of new and existing parties, also reflected why South Africa’s opposition will have a difficult task unseating the ANC despite the mounting crises and the liberation movement’s own divisions.

The fragmentation of the opposition into a host of smaller groups will see them fighting each other as well as the ANC, despite the main opposition Democratic Alliance joining several rivals in a “charter” aimed at pursuing a post-ANC coalition government.

“The multi-party charter is an interesting idea for the 2029 or 2034 election cycles, but it’s too little, too late now,” said Ziyanda Stuurman, senior analyst for Africa at the Eurasia Group think-tank. The short time before the election was “not enough to build a coalition of voters,” she said. “You also need to put in place sophisticated political machinery.”

The pledge by charter members to rule out a deal with the ANC or the radical left Economic Freedom Fighters, the third largest party, had further complicated the election mathematics.

Cyril Ramaphosa at a press briefing in in Johannesburg, South Africa
President Cyril Ramaphosa’s, left, ANC party provides social grants payments to about 19mn beneficiaries © Sharon Seretlo/Gallo Images/Getty Images

Recent polling suggested the charter parties would fall short of the majority they needed for their own governing coalition. This would mean that if the ANC fell below 50 per cent, but avoided a rout, it could do its own deals with other non-charter parties to stay in power.

The DA, the biggest charter member which won a fifth of the vote in the last national elections in 2019 against the ANC’s 57 per cent, has also struggled to shake off a perception that it is primarily a party for white people and other ethnic minorities in the country. Some traditional DA donors are also reported to be looking to split their money among the emerging contenders.

Even Jacob Zuma, the former president, is backing a new party to eject Ramaphosa, who ousted him in 2018 after years of misrule. Borrowing the name of the movement’s former armed wing, Zuma said his new Umkhonto we Sizwe would “rescue the ANC” from his successor.

ActionSA, led by the former DA mayor of Johannesburg, Herman Mashaba, is another of the newer parties.

“Everything I do, I do to win,” Mashaba told the Financial Times. “We’re working towards ActionSA being the largest party in the multi-party charter. That’s the only way we believe we can form a stable coalition,” he said.

But Mashaba also ruled out the idea of a single presidential candidate to represent the charter, which would appear to dash the hopes of those who believe a high-profile figurehead was needed to defeat Ramaphosa and the powerful ANC party machine. Under South Africa’s system of government, the president is chosen by a majority of MPs after the general election.

In Riverlea, Jardine was happy to reminisce with old comrades about fighting with the ANC to defeat apartheid, and retold the story of how he and others had defended the community from the regime’s security forces.

But nostalgia for the ANC of old and the party of Nelson Mandela has worn thin, especially among younger voters who were born after liberation. “This ANC is not the ANC of my parents or my grandparents, and it’s not my ANC,” Jardine said.

Yet some are still prepared to trust the ANC more than others to provide the little economic security that is on offer in South Africa, such as the cash social grants payments to about 19mn beneficiaries.

With this in mind, Jardine said his movement would seek to expand social protection. “Some people say we can’t afford it. We say, we can’t afford not to have it,” he said, promising to leverage the “considerable capacity” of the private sector to raise economic growth.

Stuurman said the problem was that such campaign promises were largely shots in the dark. “Nobody has a very clear idea what voters want that isn’t the ANC,” she said. “Nobody has cracked that code . . . so many of these parties can’t speak to the material realities of voters.

“That’s why you’re seeing this further fragmentation.”

Video: Eskom: how corruption and crime turned the lights off in South Africa | FT Film

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