JOHANNESBURG - South Africa's May 29 election looks set to be the most tightly contested since the end of apartheid, with opinion polls suggesting that the governing African National Congress may lose its majority for the first time after 30 years in power.

The ANC is still expected to win the largest share of the vote, so its leader President Cyril Ramaphosa is likely to remain in office, unless he faces an internal challenge if the party is perceived to have performed badly. If it falls short of a majority, it will have to negotiate a coalition or some other form of deal with other parties.

Below are key facts about Ramaphosa and the main opposition leaders: John Steenhuisen of the Democratic Alliance (DA), Julius Malema of the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) and Jacob Zuma of uMkhonto we Sizwe.


Ramaphosa, 71, rose to prominence in the 1980s as a union leader, spearheading a major miners' strike. He became ANC secretary-general in 1991 and was a leading negotiator in talks with South Africa's then white minority government that led to the end of apartheid and the advent of democracy in 1994.

He left politics in 1996, during Nelson Mandela's presidency, to focus on business. His Shanduka Holdings grew into one of the biggest Black-owned investment vehicles in South Africa, making Ramaphosa one of its wealthiest business leaders.

With then president Jacob Zuma engulfed in scandal, Ramaphosa replaced him as ANC leader in 2017 and as president in 2018, leading the party to victory in the 2019 national election, albeit with a diminished majority.

He faced a scandal of his own in 2022 after the theft of over half a million dollars in cash from his farm raised questions about the origin of the funds, but still won re-election as ANC leader that year. He denies wrongdoing and has not been charged with any offence.

Critics say he has been less effective as president than he was as a union leader or business tycoon, sometimes appearing to prevaricate on crucial reforms to avoid rifts within a factionalised ANC. Supporters see his ability to preserve consensus as a strength.


Steenhuisen, 48, has been active in politics from a young age. He was elected as a DA city councillor in Durban aged 22, then became a member of the provincial assembly in KwaZulu Natal before entering the National Assembly in 2011.

After gradually rising through the DA ranks, he became the party's leader in 2019 after its two most senior Black leaders resigned, one of them citing difficulties expanding the DA's appeal beyond its traditionally white base.

Steenhuisen, who is white, rejects criticism that the DA is a party of white privilege, saying it stands for good, clean and accountable government that would benefit all citizens. However, he has continued to face public scepticism over who the party truly represents.

As party leader, Steenhuisen has consistently pushed economically liberal positions - from breaking up struggling state-run power utility Eskom to loosening labour laws to allow companies to more easily hire and fire workers.


Often labelled a firebrand, Malema, 43, is a former leader of the ANC's youth wing who was suspended in 2011 by the party's disciplinary committee for fomenting divisions in society.

Breaking with the ANC, he set up the EFF, a Marxist party that advocates seizing land from white farmers to redistribute to Black people and nationalising gold and platinum mines, much to the alarm of South Africa's business elite.

While his rhetoric brings to the fore simmering racial and class tensions, he has demonstrated an ability to keep his supporters under control and usually prevents outbreaks of violence.

Critics deride his well-documented penchant for flashy cars, gold watches and other trappings of wealth. In 2015, a court threw out money laundering charges against him because of delays.

Malema has staked out a distinctive position on the issue of immigration from African countries. With xenophobia on the rise in society, other parties advocate tighter controls on immigration, but he has not done so, instead pledging to repeal policies that hinder the free movement of Africans.


Zuma, 82, is a veteran of the anti-apartheid struggle who was jailed for 10 years by the white minority regime on Robben Island with Mandela. He honed his political skills as the ANC's intelligence chief during the apartheid era.

A master of the ANC's complicated internal politics, Zuma rose to the top and became South Africa's president in 2009. He was forced to quit in 2018 after a term marked by corruption scandals, credit ratings downgrades and economic stagnation.

After he stepped down, a public inquiry into government corruption concluded it had been rampant during his time in office. He was sentenced to 15 months in jail in 2021 for defying a court order to give evidence to the inquiry.

His sentence sparked riots in his home province of KwaZulu Natal, where he remains popular.

Now openly hostile to the leadership of the ANC, Zuma has thrown his weight behind the newly formed MK party, which is named after the ANC's former armed wing from apartheid years.

Even though he has been barred by South Africa's top court from running for parliament because of his prison sentence, his name will still appear on the ballot paper as leader of MK.

Polls suggest MK is eating into the support bases of both the ANC and the EFF, especially in KwaZulu Natal.

(Reporting by Estelle Shirbon, Tim Cocks and Joe Bavier; Editing by Emelia Sithole-Matarise)