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In a historic election, South Africa's ANC loses majority for the first time

African National Congress (ANC) polling agents set up a tent decorated with party paraphernalia outside a polling station in Umlazi on May 29, during South Africa's general election.
Zinyange Auntony
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AFP via Getty Images

African National Congress (ANC) polling agents set up a tent decorated with party paraphernalia outside a polling station in Umlazi on May 29, during South Africa's general election.

JOHANNESBURG — South Africa’s ruling African National Congress party has lost its outright majority for the first time in a devastating blow for the party once led by Nelson Mandela. The ANC has dominated South African politics since winning in the first post-apartheid elections 30 years ago.

The ANC was braced for a disappointing outcome, predicted by polls before Wednesday’s elections, but the final results are even more sobering. It won 40 percent of the vote, falling from 57% in 2019.

Tessa Dooms, a director at Rivonia Circle, a think tank in South Africa, said it was a historic result that diminished the ANC’s three decades hold on power. “The election in South Africa is an important watershed moment that fundamentally changes politics,” she said.

According to the constitution, the party with the largest vote has two weeks from the result confirmation to form a new government. The ANC will now have to form a coalition government with one or more opposition parties for the first time, to remain in power.

Women with children walk past election posters in Tembisa, east of Johannesburg, South Africa 2024.
Themba Hadebe / AP
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AP
Women with children walk past election posters in Tembisa, east of Johannesburg, South Africa 2024.

Driving the party’s waning support is an all too bleak reality for millions of people.

South Africa remains one of the most unequal countries in the world, with 32% unemployed, along with soaring levels of crime. Immense frustrations with water and electricity shortages as well as corruption have led to growing criticism of the ANC government.

For many, the initial progress that followed liberation from white-minority rule has not been sustained. Despite significant achievements in Africa’s most industrialized nation, inequalities inherited from the apartheid regime have remained, and over the last decade, even worsened. The party’s vote share has fallen by a few percent in every election since 2004 — exacerbated by a generation divide, with younger voters born after apartheid, the so-called “born frees”, less likely to vote for the ANC.

“On the one hand, we overcame apartheid as a structural force,” Dooms said, “On the other hand, we have not actually changed many of the dynamics. We inherited inequality of one form, and we have doubled down on inequality in South Africa and another form going forward and it has hurt us.”

But in this election, the gradual decline in ANC support over the last 20 years grew more dramatic, Dooms said. “The ANC has in some ways imploded in the form of its former president, Jacob Zuma. The rise of the MK is certainly the biggest story of this election."

The fall and rise of Zuma

The controversial, convicted former ANC leader’s new party, the uMkhonto weSizwe party, or MK, was the story of the election. MK was named after the disbanded military wing of the ANC, and registered just six months ago. But in a short space of time the party has soared above expectations. The party was bolstered by many former ANC supporters and a base of largely poor and ethnically Zulu South Africans who followed Zuma’s lead and left the ANC. It is now the third-largest party in South Africa, with almost 15%.

It caps a dramatic fall and rise of the 82-year-old leader. While a conviction bars him from being elected into parliament, as leader of the MK, he could now be a significant player in the negotiations to form a new coalition government, and could use his power to attempt to avoid a further conviction.

Zuma was forced to resign from the presidency in 2018, and was convicted in 2021 of failing to present himself at a corruption trial against him. He is also due to be tried again next year for corruption in an alleged arms deal in 1999.

Former president of the A.N.C. and South Africa, Jacob Zuma, waves to supporters after casting his ballot in Nkandla, Kwazulu Natal, South Africa, Wednesday, May 29, 2024 during the general elections.
Emilio Morenatti / AP
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AP
Former president of the A.N.C. and South Africa, Jacob Zuma, waves to supporters after casting his ballot in Nkandla, Kwazulu Natal, South Africa, Wednesday, May 29, 2024 during the general elections.

The populist leader has accused his successor, President Cyril Ramaphosa, of being behind his legal troubles. Now Zuma has inflicted a major defeat on his rival, who is likely to face pressure from some in his party to resign.

Zuma’s daughter and MK member, Duduzile Sambudla, told NPR, “The MK is not willing to go into a coalition with the ANC of Ramaphosa,” she said, implying that a coalition would be possible without Ramaphosa.

The MK’s success against the ANC is most significant in South Africa’s second-most populous province, KwaZulu Natal (KZN). The party won almost 46% of the vote, against nearly 18% for the ANC in a landslide result.

Liberation icon Nelson Mandela first voted at the Ohlange High Schoolin Durban, KZN, in 1994, when he became president. Thirty years later, many voters at the same polling unit echoed a similar sentiment: frustration with the state of the country, and a desire for change.

Nqobile Khumalo, 24, arrived at the polling station shortly after polls opened at 7 a.m. on Wednesday and was voting for the first time. “We just really hope that there will be change,” she said. Tracy Bongiwe Zondo, 39, went further. “Before now I was voting for the ANC but now I’m voting for MK because I need a change in our community,” she said.

President Ramaphosa’s future is now an open question. He is the first ANC president to lose the party’s majority, has overseen the steepest fall in share of the vote (17%), and turnout has reduced to 58 percent. The ANC’s head of elections, Nomvula Mokonyane told NPR Ramaphosa would not step down. “Nobody’s going to resign,” she said. But Ramaphosa faces a major challenge to survive the duration of his second term, if he manages to form a government that based on the results, will likely be divisive.

South African President Cyril Ramaphos, center, speaks to reporters after voting his ballot Wednesday, May 29, 2024, for the general elections in Soweto, South Africa. South Africans voted in an election seen as their country’s most important in 30 years. It could put the young democracy in unknown territory.
Jerome Delay / AP
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AP
South African President Cyril Ramaphos, center, speaks to reporters after voting his ballot Wednesday, May 29, 2024, for the general elections in Soweto, South Africa. South Africans voted in an election seen as their country’s most important in 30 years. It could put the young democracy in unknown territory.

New era of coalition government

Professor David Everett at Wits School of Governance said the result forcing the ANC to partner with another party was a positive step for the country. “I think the ANC suddenly having to be accountable rather than having majority after majority will be an exceptionally good thing for South Africa,” he said.

Coalition governments have long existed on the local level in South Africa, but never at the federal level, and the makeup of an ANC-coalition government is now the big question.

The party could align with the official opposition Democratic Alliance, a center-right party, largely led and supported by the white minority in South Africa which won close to 22%. “There are two factions in the ANC. The one led by President Ramaphosa is much more concerned with the state of the economy and quite likely to look to the Democratic Alliance,” Everett said. But the move could alienate many in the ANC’s other faction who would consider it a red line.

The ANC could also align with the MK, giving Zuma influence in the government, or with the radical left-wing Economic Freedom Fighters party, led by another former ANC youth leader, Julius Malema. The party came fourth with 9% of the vote, also affected by larger-than-predicted support for the MK party, some experts said.

But a coalition with either or both parties, which largely emerged from the ANC, could prove volatile, amid the divisions that led the parties to breakaway in the first place. “To go into a coalition with your sworn enemies in the EFF and MK, you are asking for politics to dominate everything, as they try to wreck the ANC even more and take it over,” Everett said.

The ANC transitioned from a beloved liberation movement to a political force that has dominated South African politics. But its hold on South African politics is diminishing, as it struggles to contain its divisions and address the country’s major challenges.

South African politics may have just changed permanently, from an era of one party rule. Within the country’s proportional representation system, more parties and independent candidates than ever are forming and providing an alternative — a reality the ANC must now grapple with.

Copyright 2024 NPR

Emmanuel Akinwotu
Emmanuel Akinwotu is an international correspondent for NPR. He joined NPR in 2022 from The Guardian, where he was West Africa correspondent.
Kate Bartlett
[Copyright 2024 NPR]