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The three essential facts for understanding South Africa's national election

South African President Jacob Zuma
South African President Jacob Zuma
Theana Breugem/Foto24/Gallo Images/Getty Images

South Africa is a big, complicated country and this week it's had a big, complicated national election. Understanding all the important intricacies of South African politics can't be done in a day; it could take a lifetime of learning (I might start with the 2012 Douglas Foster book, "After Mandela: The Struggle for Freedom in Post-Apartheid South Africa").

Still, you've got to start somewhere. I'd suggest three very basic points for grasping the very basics of South African politics. Each of them can be summed up in a single sentence: South African politics will continue to be dominated by the same political party that's controlled the government for 20 years. That party, the African National Congress, is a corrupt mess. Inequality is much better than it was during apartheid, but it's still very bad.

(1) South African politics will continue to be dominated by the same political party that's controlled the government for 20 years

The African National Congress (ANC) is South Africa's biggest and most important political party, it's won a handy majority every election since 1994, when apartheid ended and the country's non-white majority finally won voting rights. It appears to have won about 63 percent of votes in this week's election.

Most South African voters, particularly black South Africans who make up 80 percent of the population, have been loyal to the ANC since apartheid's end. While the party's majority has slipped a little, it's still so overwhelming that there's little reason to expect ANC rule will end anytime soon. That loyalty is complex, but the biggest factor appears to be gratitude for the ANC's role in ending apartheid; it first formed in 1912 to fight for political freedoms for South Africans, became the leading anti-apartheid organization, held that role for a half-century, and in 1994 nominated Nelson Mandela as its first-ever presidential candidate, who won.

The ANC has spent recent elections years running, and winning, on the names of its pre-1994 anti-apartheid heroes — even more so the names of its actual, present-day politicians. As the New York Times' Norimitsu Onishi put it, "The party is counting on its dead heroes to keep its current, sullied leadership in power. It is likely to work." There was some speculation the new generation of "born free" voters — South Africans who never knew apartheid — might vote against the ANC, but so far it looks like they're simply not tuned out.

(2) That party, the African National Congress, is a corrupt mess

The ANC's problems are as numerous as they are well-known. Corruption within the party is rife — President Jacob Zuma is accused of using public money to build himself a vast, Versailles-style mansion, for example. Bags of voter ballots, most of them voting for the opposition party, were found sitting outside recently; that people would even see the ANC as potentially capable of this is a sign of how bad the party's reputation has become.

Corruption is far from the ANC's only failure, but it's a good symbol of the party's growing image of ineptitude. The economy is in bad shape, racial and economic inequality are severe, jobs are scarce, racial resentments persist. In late 2012, police shot and killed 34 striking workers at a platinum mine, which for many South Africans highlighted the country's still-severe divisions.

The ANC, for these reasons and others, is not exactly beloved. Neither is Zuma; since taking office in 2009, his approval rating has fallen from 77 to 46 percent. So people are not voting for the ANC because they're enamored with it, but despite its problems; they just don't seem to see better choices.

(3) Inequality is much better than under apartheid, but still very bad

During apartheid rule, from 1948 to 1994, racial inequality in South Africa was truly some of the worst in the world. Replacing apartheid with a democratic government, which granted voting rights to all races, ended that. Things became many, many times better after 1994. But a half-century of state-enforced racial divisions don't disappear overnight.

Economic inequality has been one of the most resilient forms of racial inequality: whites are disproportionately represented in the upper classes, blacks in the lower. That translates into a degree of de facto segregation in politics, neighborhoods, schools — in the sorts of jobs people do and the industries they work and how they're treated. The country's recent economic stalls have not helped. Racial resentments, and sometimes racial violence, persist.

That malaise of inequality informs the first two points. The ANC is the party of racial equality and liberation, so they can frame themselves as still fighting the old struggle with some justification, but their increasingly obvious failures to improve that inequality is a big part of what makes their perseverance less than inspiring.