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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

South African voters reject the party that freed them from apartheid

President Cyril Ramaphosa of South Africa at a campaign event of the African National Congress party in the Tshwane Region of Pretoria, South Africa, on May 10, 2024. (Ilan Godfrey/The New York Times)

By John Eligon

The African National Congress lost its political monopoly on South Africa after election results Saturday showed that with almost all of the votes counted, the party had received only about 40%, falling short of winning an absolute majority for the first time since vanquishing Africa’s last white-led regime 30 years ago.

With South Africans facing one of the world’s highest unemployment rates, shortages of electricity and water, and rampant crime, the governing party still bested its competitors but fell far short of the nearly 58% of the vote it won in the last election, in 2019.

The staggering nosedive for Africa’s oldest liberation movement put one of the continent’s most stable countries and its largest economy onto an uneasy and uncharted course.

The party, which rose to international acclaim on the shoulders of Nelson Mandela, will now have two weeks to cobble together a government by partnering with one or more rival parties that have derided it as corrupt and vowed never to form an alliance with it.

“I’m actually shocked,” said Maropene Ramokgopa, one of the top officials in the ANC. “It has opened our eyes to say, ‘Look, we are missing something, somewhere.’”

South Africa’s president, Cyril Ramaphosa, who leads the ANC, faces a grave threat to his ambition of serving a second term. He will be forced to summon the negotiating skills that famously helped him broker the end of apartheid, and pull together his highly factionalized party, which is likely to disagree on which party to ally with.

Detractors are expected lay the blame for this devastating tumble at Ramaphosa’s feet and could try to replace him, possibly with his deputy, Paul Mashatile. Previously, the party’s biggest drop from one election to the next was 4.7%, in 2019.

“I didn’t expect Ramaphosa, in five years, to make things worse than what he found,” said Khulu Mbatha, an ANC veteran who has been critical of the party for not tackling corruption aggressively enough.

A big factor in the ANC’s collapse was Jacob Zuma, Ramaphosa’s archenemy and predecessor as president and ANC leader.

Just six months ago, Zuma helped launch a new party, uMkhonto weSizwe, or MK, which was the name of the ANC’s armed wing during the struggle against apartheid. The party won almost 15% of the vote, an unprecedented result for a new party in a national election. It siphoned crucial votes from the ANC and other parties.

Despite the astonishing outcome, Zuma — a scandal-plagued populist who thrives on grievance politics — discredited the election, saying his party had actually received two-thirds of the vote, but the results were rigged. Party officials say they have presented evidence to the electoral commission. But Zuma, who leads the party despite being banned from joining Parliament, did not make that evidence public. He warned the commission not to certify the election results Sunday as scheduled.

“Nobody must declare tomorrow,” he said during a news conference at the headquarters in Johannesburg, where election officials were releasing the results. “If that happens, people will be provoking us. I’m hoping whoever is responsible is hearing what we are saying. Don’t start trouble when there’s no trouble.”

Representatives from about two dozen other small parties also claiming irregularities in the election joined Zuma in his call to postpone the announcement of official results.

Zuma’s actions foreshadow the political challenges he could cause the ANC.

Without an absolute majority, the ANC can no longer handpick the country’s president, who is elected by the 400-member National Assembly. There were 52 parties in the national election, and the number of seats that parties receive in the Assembly is based on the percentage of votes they won.

“South Africa is going to go through teething problems as it enters this era,” said Pranish Desai, a data analyst with Good Governance Africa, a nonpartisan organization. “Some of them might be significant, but voters decided they want this.”

Because of the big gap to reach 50%, the ANC will likely try to ally with some of the bigger parties it traded bitter barbs with during the campaign.

This predicament upends South Africa’s political landscape and places the ANC at an inflection point. Its potential coalition partners run the ideological gamut, and the party could alienate different parts of its base depending on whom it chooses as a partner.

A big question is whether the ANC will embrace or shun Zuma, who resigned as president in 2018 because of corruption allegations.

The ANC’s leaders may resist one of Zuma’s fundamental demands for a coalition agreement. Duduzile Zuma, a daughter of the former president, said her father’s party would not partner with “the ANC of Ramaphosa.”

Another potential ally for the ANC is the Democratic Alliance, which drew the second largest share of the vote, nearly 22%. Some ANC members have accused the Democratic Alliance of promoting policies that would essentially take the country back to apartheid. Others view a partnership between the two parties as a natural fit because the Democratic Alliance’s market-based view of the economy aligns closely with Ramaphosa’s.

But entering this grand coalition could prove politically risky for Ramaphosa because the Democratic Alliance has been staunchly against race-based policies intended to increase Black employment and wealth. It has also pushed issues that appeal to the right-wing white population.

The ANC could instead look to the Economic Freedom Fighters, a party that was started a decade ago by one of the ANC’s expelled youth leaders, Julius Malema. Malema’s party fell short of expectations, winning less than 10% of the vote after getting nearly 11% last time.

Analysts said that such a partnership could spook big business and international investors because of the Economic Freedom Fighters’ insistence on nationalizing mines and other businesses and taking land from white owners to redistribute to Black South Africans. But a large segment of the ANC is ideologically aligned with the Economic Freedom Fighters’ philosophy on wealth redistribution.

There is fear that the country is headed toward political chaos that will shift focus away from its many problems. Coalition governments on the local level have proved unstable, with leaders changing on a whim and infighting so bitter that lawmakers fail to get anything done for their constituents.

For the many South Africans whose enduring hardship made them question whether they truly had been liberated from apartheid, this unprecedented moment represented a chance for a reset on par with the transition to democracy a generation ago.

During the election, the slogan “2024 is our 1994” circulated on social media and on campaign posters, especially among young South Africans.

The watershed election ended the dominance of a party that spearheaded the fight against colonialism, which reshaped Africa in the second half of the 20th century. Stories of the torture and hardship ANC members endured helped turn many of them into heroes in the eyes of South Africa and the world — a reputation that kept many voters who grew up under apartheid undyingly loyal to the party.

But that loyalty waned as many South Africans failed to see their material conditions improve significantly under decades of ANC leadership — while many of the party’s leaders amassed huge wealth. Younger South Africans who did not live under white rule have become a growing part of the electorate, and they tend to be less interested in the party’s aura than its performance in government.

Mavuso Msimang, a veteran ANC member, said he could sense his party’s demise when he drove past the long lines outside polling stations on Election Day. He worried that the party would be punished for its failure to deliver basic services, like electricity.

“I said to myself, ‘You know, these people are not queuing to vote to say thank you to the ANC for taking the lights away,’” he said. “It was clear that these people were not going to vote for us.”

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