voice of reason: Nelson Mandela casts his vote at Ohlange High School in Inanda, north of Durban, on April 27, 1994.

In 1994 when the ANC stood for the first democratic elections the question was not if, but the margin of victory for the previously banned liberation movement.

The South African population of roughly 80 percent black were expected to vote ANC, bar a few philosophical or cultural options offered by the IFP, Azapo, PAC or UDM and others.

The decisive 63 percent margin of victory was a resounding mandate for the late Nelson Mandela and Africa’s oldest liberation movement to reshape the South African agenda and global narrative.

His successor Thabo Mbeki’s 66.3 percent and 69.7 percent subsequent margins of victory in the 1999 and 2004 elections consolidated the ruling party’s mandate as the people’s trusted messiah. Although the party did not achieve the desired two-thirds majority with Jacob Zuma, it nonetheless did not erode the ruling party’s mandate or status.

Expectedly, as it consolidated its democracy and the ANC deepened its governing experience, South Africa needed adaptable and different leaders for different times. And the success of the ANC, as Rushil Ranchod says in A Kind of Magic: The Political Marketing of the ANC, has been its ability to “reinvent itself” through time.

Mandela was the new South Africa’s global pied piper and the embodiment of peace, reconciliation and humanity. Mbeki was the efficient workhorse that had to lead the party’s mandate to dismantle the National Party’s abhorred legacy, deliver on the hopes of South Africans for a new dawn of opportunity, and earn South Africa respect as a global African nation.

Whereas Mbeki was accused of being “out of touch” and “autocratic”, Zuma stepped in with a reputation as an accessible and consultative leader with a “common touch”.

The party’s “better life for all” promise was not just a slogan coined by Stanley Greenberg and Frank Greer, the US political advisers behind the ANC’s 1994 post-apartheid election campaign that was memorably implemented by South Africa’s TBWA Hunt Lascaris. It succinctly captured the mandate and vision of the ANC to lead South Africa out of the apartheid abyss.

Between 1994 and 2012, the promise of a better life for all was being delivered by growing the country’s GDP more than 175 percent against a population growth of 25 percent, increasing access to electricity (58 percent – 85 percent), water (61 percent – 74 percent) and sanitation (50 percent – 62 percent), and a global reputation as Africa’s standard for doing business and number one destination for foreign direct investment (FDI).

As a result, for a long time, the ANC – and therefore South Africa – could do no wrong. The successful hosting of the 2010 Fifa World Cup was a crowning global moment for the young and proud democracy.

These are no doubt a result of the ANC’s relatively successful agenda for a better South Africa. They are also the ANC’s undoing in a nation whose lot, while vastly improved, expected and deserved much more.

Consequently, in the lead-up to the fifth democratic elections, things are quite different.

Jacob Zuma’s 2008 prediction that the ANC will rule until Jesus comes didn’t seem to count on a barrage of formal and informal internal and external challenges and challengers to the ANC’s dominant mandate.

There has been a seismic shift between the environment in which the ANC contested between 1994 through to 2009 and 2014. Jesus is threatening to arrive sooner than anticipated.

The growing disparities between the haves and have-nots, chronic unemployment of as much as 30 percent (and higher among the youth), labour disruptions that have rocketed and rising perceptions of corruption have the ruling party facing unprecedented challenges and challengers.

For the first time, the born-frees, those born since Mandela’s February 11, 1990 release or the historic elections of 1994, are going to play a critical role in the vote.

They will be adding their muscle and vote to represent a vocal, albeit generally apathetic, bloc that represents 58.5 percent of people under the age of 34 who generally have no attachment to the liberation struggle. There has been a dramatic rise in the black middle class that is estimated to have grown by as much as 10 million between 2001 and 2010.

A unity of the tripartite alliance and the ANC in general that were a hallmark of the party have unravelled. To compound the ruling party’s problems there is growing discontent with President Jacob Zuma for a range issues headlined by the Nkandla controversy.

For the first time in its short 20-year governing history, there is a growing possibility that the ANC, while expected to win, will not gain a decisive mandate.

In pitting its record on creating a better life for all, the ANC will not just be challenging Helen Zille and the DA’s proposition for building “one nation, one future” or Dr Mamphela Ramphele’s promise “to restore the promise of our great nation and offer the hope of a better future for every South African”.

The ANC may be able to weather the DA and Agang’s and other parties’ messages primarily around corruption, inefficiency, patronage and Zuma’s leadership and moral arc.

They’ll position Zille and the DA as relics of the past who have shown their true character by flip-flopping on BEE and affirmative action, and fronting token, privileged and inexperienced Mmusi Maimane and Lindiwe Mazibuko while governing with a male and pale Western Cape cabinet that’s bent on returning “boers” to leadership.

They’ll say the DA’s “one nation, one future”, exactly the same as its predecessor, the DP, put forward in 1992 shows a yearning for the good old days.

They’ll say like the DA’s Stop the ANC campaign in the 2009 elections, as it was with the DA campaign with Zach de Beer and a primary message of Stop intolerANCe Vote DA is a continuation of a deep-seated rejection of black rule in South Africa rather than an issues-based campaign against ANC failures.

They’ll dismiss the DA’s success in central Cape Town as an elitist focus on minorities at the expense of the struggling majority black voters in the Western Cape. They’ll position Ramphele as a privileged suburban with illegitimate struggle credentials whose declared R55m wealth shows she’s out of touch with ordinary South Africans.

They’ll say Agang’s enlisting of the services of a US lobbyist, Andrew Sillen, shows she’s pushing a Western agenda.

But the ANC will not be able to easily dismiss its prodigal enfant terrible former youth leader Julius Malema who while facing a barrage of fraud, corruption and tax charges has been as effective against them as he was for them. Malema and his EFF’s promise to the poor and young to create “economic freedom” and nationalise mines and financial services to accelerate a better life.

While they’ll dismiss him as a disgruntled former cadre, his charismatic appeal and ANC insider knowledge present the grand old party with its biggest challenge for this “lucrative” segment’s vote.

They will probably ignore the rest of the fringe parties – the IFP, ACDP, FF+, Cope and others and let them battle it out for insignificant parliamentary seats, perks and inaudible noise in the back benches, rather than as serious challengers to lead the nation.

In countering the anti-Zuma sentiment, they’ll argue that the ANC is not about Jacob Zuma but the collective. They’ll argue that the ANC is not about the cult of personality but the party of the people for the people by the people, many of whom such as Mandela, Chris Hani, OR Tambo, Walter Sisulu, Joe Slovo, sacrificed their lives for a better and free South Africa.

They’ll put the legacy (and face) of ANC stalwart Mandela as the embodiment of the ANC and at the centre of the ANC’s campaign to remind South Africans how life is better with the ANC because of the sacrifices of Mandela.

They’ll count on the real assumption that the majority of South Africans, especially the elderly and rural, attribute the democratic gains, opportunities and security to the party and not the person.

As a 20-year anniversary campaign, a trip to the Apartheid Museum signals how the messages could play out: remembering the past suffering and inspiring hope for a better life.

But now that the ANC is in power, primarily, they’ll need to balance that with a demonstration of delivery on the “better life” mandate.

Back then the ANC’s message, while anchored on the promise of a better life for all, put the apartheid legacy of the National Party that butchered Hector Pieterson, Hani and many others during 1976, Sharpeville and Boipatong and countless others at the centre of an undesired life.

Consequently, the literature, narrative and campaigns for 1994 put these evil experiences at the centre of the choice between the ANC and the National Party. To counter, with a much smaller governing scope, the DA will seek to make a case that the success with central Cape Town (with a blind eye to the rest of the (black) province) is a microcosm of how well they’ll run government.

They have sought the help of former architect of the ANC’s better life message and polling adviser Stan Greenberg who recently spoke of his disillusionment with Mandela’s successors to help deliver their “one nation, one future” promise.

On the other hand, like the ANC in 1994, the EFF and Agang, with no governing experience or baggage, will seek to anchor their campaigns on “hope” and focus their energies on repositioning the ANC as the National Party reincarnate.

They’ll put it to the voters that it is time as the late Nelson Mandela suggested in a 1990’s address to a Cosatu Congress that “if the ANC does to you what the apartheid government did to you, you must do to the ANC what you did to the apartheid government”.

Twenty years ago, a vote in the first democratic elections was a referendum to affirm the legitimacy of the ANC. This year, the vote will be a referendum on the adequacy of the ANC to be the omniscient ruling party of South Africa.

The differentiator in this election campaign will probably be less about the specifics but more about trust, relevance and leadership. All parties and their leaders will sadly be left wanting.

But after all votes are counted, the ANC will still rule South Africa, albeit with a less decisive mandate than in 1994. It is both a sign of a maturing democracy and the ANC’s own doing in squandering a once impenetrable mandate and legacy.

Thebe Ikalafeng is a global African political branding adviser and author who successfully led the political branding of Ghana’s ruling party in 2008 and 2012. @ThebeIkalafeng.

The Sunday Independent