"They have bled the country near dry. The graft has become endemic and we can no longer even quantify the cost of it in rand. The political corruption has collapsed some of our key institutions," says Buhle Nomanzi in reference to the African National Congress (ANC) ahead of tomorrow’s critical general election, writes F Ni Ghiollanariathe.

"And even though their ranks are still stacked with some big-name crooks, I will give the ANC my vote," adds the confident, 20-something professional from her upmarket Johannesburg suburban apartment.

Nomanzi’s views might read incongruent, yet they are shared by many of the 26 million registered South African voters who are expected to return the ANC to power for a sixth consecutive term, in keeping with polls in recent weeks that suggest the ruling party will walk away with a comfortable majority, somewhere in the region of 55-60%.

That’s not bad going for a party whose performance has infuriated, if not financially crippled, the electorate in recent years.

Jacob Zuma
Jacob Zuma

During the nine-year rule of Jacob Zuma, who was voted into office as the ‘people’s president’ in 2009 on the back of a rising populist sentiment, South Africa became deeply corrupt.

Public finances were looted on a wide scale and government tenders were diverted into the hands of politically connected cronies.

State-owned entities fell under the management of party cadres, the bulk of them unfit for the purpose to hand.

It is estimated that corruption cost the South African Gross Domestic Product (GDP) in the region of R27 billion a year (€1.6bn) during the Zuma era (2009 – 2018).

The international ratings agencies eventually downgraded the country to sub-investment grade, which scared off much-needed foreign direct investment.

It affected the local currency, pushing up inflation figures and driving the already sky-high unemployment. Yet the wasteful expenditure continued unabated.

To ensure that no one could be brought to book, Mr Zuma installed his loyalists at the various law enforcement bodies, such as the police and the national prosecuting authority, until it reached a point where the state had been "captured".

Throughout this time, Mr Zuma was a priceless gift to the country’s opposition parties, which grew their vote share at the expense of the ANC, a centre-right party with a heavy populist accent.

When the ANC subsequently lost control of some of the main cities and metro areas in the 2016 local government elections, the main beneficiaries were the official opposition, the neo-liberal Democratic Alliance, along with the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF), a radical, right-wing revolutionary force started in 2013 by renowned populist and former ANC member Julius Malema.

Had Mr Zuma remained at the helm, between them they were on track to topple the ANC tomorrow.

However, Mr Zuma and his project of state capture came to an abrupt halt at the end of 2017, when his deputy, Cyril Ramaphosa, was elected as the new head of the party. One of his early moves was to oust Mr Zuma as state president in the early days of 2018.

Cyril Ramaphosa
Cyril Ramaphosa

Since then, Mr Ramaphosa, a former arms inspector in Northern Ireland, has been on a steady clean-up campaign and in the past year has instated an independent inquiry into the capture of the state, ousted hordes of Mr Zuma lackeys from key posts in state institutions, and generally tried to renew and reform the country and its now moribund economy.

By all accounts, his efforts have paid off. A former unionist, Mr Ramaphosa played a key role in the 1990s talks that brought an end to apartheid.

He spent the early years of the democracy within ANC structures, but then departed for the private sector in the late 1990s when he lost out on the presidency of the party to Thabo Mbeki.

A self-made rand billionaire, Mr Ramaphosa returned to politics in 2012 when Mr Zuma’s ANC was seeking a respectable figure to shore up its losses and he was elected as Mr Zuma’s deputy.

Since coming to power last year, the 67-year-old has shown himself to be a strong statesman with an uncanny charm.

Not only have the local and international investor communities rowed in behind him, so too have the ever-sceptical white voters, some of whom are expected to help bring the ANC close to, if not over, the 60% mark tomorrow.

What they are betting on is Mr Ramaphosa’s promise to restore South Africa to what it promised to be when the ANC came to power 25 years ago.

But does the ANC deserve another chance?

"No, they don’t," retorts Ronnie Kasrils, a one-time staunch member of the ANC and former minister of intelligence in Mr Mbeki’s second cabinet.

Though he is likely to vote for the ANC tomorrow, "My heart is not in it, but I know at an intellectual level, it is what I have to do."

He explains: "Ramaphosa is not providing the blue print that I believe we need as a country, but he is giving me the comfort that he will clean up the current mess and get the country out of the dire straits it finds itself in now."

Mr Ramaphosa is essentially offering the likes of Mr Kasrils a reprieve, a short-term solution to a complex situation for which the end game is not yet clear.

 Julius Malema
Julius Malema

South Africa is a very young democracy, still in its 20s, and struggling to find its long-term identity, a vulnerable situation that Mr Malema has tried to capitalise on, as he drives a radically populist agenda that includes free education, millions of jobs, an unaffordable increase in social welfare grants, and distribution of arable land seized from white farmers.

In a country where unemployment sits stubbornly at around 30% and more than 56% of the population sits below the poverty line, the EFF’s campaign promises carry tremendous appeal to a large swathe of the electorate that five successive ANC governments have left behind.

Hence a vote for the ANC is also a protest against Mr Malema’s EFF and the populist swell that underpins it, according to Ms Nomanzi.

"For all its mistakes, I would much prefer to see the ANC in power than the EFF," she said. "South Africa deserves more than that."