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PoliticsSouth Africa

South Africa: ANC loses majority in crucial vote

June 2, 2024

The results are in: South Africa's governing ANC party has lost its outright majority for the first time since the country's transition to democracy 30 years ago. What does this mean for South Africa's political future?

South African President Cyril Ramaphosa gazes into the distance at an election campaign event in Johannesburg, South Africa
Daunting times ahead for President Cyril Ramaphosa: coalition talks are expected to be prolonged and messyImage: Zhang Yudong/Xinhua/picture alliance

The final results released by the country's Independent Electoral Commission (IEC) on Sunday showed that the African National Congress (ANC) has suffered a steep fall to just 40.18% — a huge drop from the 57.5% it took in the previous election in 2019.

The party once led by anti-apartheid figurehead Nelson Mandela also failed to secure outright majorities in three of the country's nine provinces in regional election votes.

The Western Cape Province was retained by the Democratic Alliance (DA) majority, while the ANC's stronghold of KwaZulu-Natal was taken by the newly-formed uMkhonto we Sizwe party (MK), led by former president and former ANC leader Jacob Zuma.

The province of Gauteng, which includes the country's economic powerhouse Johannesburg and the country's executive capital Pretoria, also saw a major fall for the ANC.

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The heaviest drop for the ANC in 30 years

It's the first time since democratic elections were introduced in South Africa in 1994 thatthe ANC has not won an outright majority at the ballot box.

ANC National Chairperson Gwede Mantashe told DW that Zuma is mainly to blame for the party's heavy losses, as his departure from the party decimated the ANC. "He took a big chunk of the ANC," Mantashe said."This tells you that the results are reflecting the split." 

Zuma formed the MK late last year claiming that the ANC had brought too much suffering to the black people of South Africa — though many of Zuma's opponents would argue that the country's population suffered the most under his presidency from 2009 to 2018.

Corruption, unemployment, blackouts

Political analyst Lesiba Teffo believes that, in fact, many voters rejected the ANC regardless of its leader. The ANC had, he argued, failed to deliver many of its pledges and fallen into a hole of corruption and cronyism.

Teffo cited growing poverty and unemployment, hours-long electricity cuts (known as "load shedding"), and endemic corruption as reasons why many voters fled to other political parties.

"They [the ANC] allowed too many wrong people to come on board. They didn't take advice when they were advised, and they didn't act when the law demanded that they should act against certain people," Teffo told DW. "They are makers of their own demise." 

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A dramatic shake-up of SA's political landscape

The Democratic Alliance (DA), for years South Africa's biggest opposition party, came in at number two in the election, with 21.8% of the national vote, a one-point improvement from the 20.77% it garnered in the previous election.

Zuma's MK party, meanwhile, can be seen as the biggest winner: The six-month-old party and first-time election contestant came in third with 14.59%, ahead of the far-left Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF).

The EFF came fourth with only 9.51%, one point down from 2019.

Two women are seen walking with their two children outside a metal fence with various election posters
The 2024 elections were hailed as the most important polls since the end of apartheid in 1994Image: Themba Hadebe/AP Photo/picture alliance

Coalition talks to begin

The ANC's dip below the 50.1% required to form a government has left the party with no other option but to look for coalition partners.

"We will have to talk to various parties," Mantashe said. "We have a range of them available, but we have not decided on one. We can work with any party that agrees with us; any party that agrees with our principles."

The EFF, one of the most successful break-away parties from the ANC, which is led by former ANC Youth League leader Julius Malema, has extended a hand to the ANC. Its 9.51% share of the vote, however, would not suffice for an ANC and EFF coalition.

"We want to work with the ANC. If there is any party that we can work with and work properly, it is the ANC because the ANC when compromised is not arrogant," EFF leader Malema told a media briefing on Saturday.

Julius Malema is seen walking alongside several other EFF party members at the  Results Operation Centre (ROC) in Midrand, South Africa
Julius Malema (c.) is pleased with his party's pivotal position despite losing support compared to 2019Image: Themba Hadebe/AP Photo/picture alliance

Democratic Alliance: A sensible but unlikely partner

The DA says it is yet to decide on whether to join a coalition with the ANC. "There are no formal talks at this stage," DA spokesperson Solly Malatsi told DW. "Let's wait for the DA's central executive meeting to take a position in terms of the way forward."

While an ANC-DA coalition could work both in terms of majorities and the parties' common goals, it is unlikely to be an easy union. "The DA-ANC is a demand of big business, the moneyed West, the NATO axis, and it can happen, but if it does happen, it will trigger ongoing protests for the next five years on the side of EFF and MK," political analyst Sandile Swana told DW.

Adam Habib, vice-chancellor of the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) at the University of London
According Adam Habib, it is unlikely that the ANC will govern with the DA for the next five yearsImage: Mujahid Safodien/AFP/Getty Images

Adam Habib, vice-chancellor of the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) at the University of London, also said that a "marriage of convenience" between the DA and the ANC would fail to garner enough public support. "The DA is still perceived as a traditional white party, which does not make for good optics," he told DW.

However, a survey by News24, one of the biggest South African online news outlets, revealed that most of the 3,500 participants in the survey preferred an ANC-DA coalition to other alternatives.

Scoreboard at the Election National Result Centre at Gallagher Estate in Midrand, South Africa
More than 70 parties entered the polls but only the top four qualify for a coalitionImage: Thuso Khumalo/DW

Struggle tradition versus revolutionary spirit

Swana believes that reaching any coalition agreement will be "a hard nut to crack" for the parties, but there is "no other way out of this."

"The options are very clear," she said. "Zuma is the first connection point between the ANC and the outside world, and that outside world is MK, which can immediately take them above 50%." She also highlighted, however, that there is a lot of animosity towards the MK in the ANC camp thanks to Zuma's antagonism toward his erstwhile party.

"The EFF also comes in as an option; a young force to rejuvenate a revolutionary spirit," she added, but said that there were other potential partners, such as the United Democratic Movement (UDM) and the Inkatha Freedom Party (IFP), which would allow the ANC to "reconnect … to our ancestors," referring to the spirit of the struggle against apartheid, which they all shared.

For Habib, the ANC is going to have to choose between the lesser of two evils: "An alliance with MK will consolidate the power of the most corrupt and most incompetent president in a century," he said on X, warning, however, that a union with EFF could be just as "disastrous."

South Africa's uneasy history of power sharing

Forming a coalition will be a first for the ANC — though the concept of power-sharing is not. In addition to entering multiple provincial and municipal coalitions over the years, the ANC governed as a senior partner at the national level in the so-called Government of National Unity (GNU) after the first democratic elections in 1994.

Falling short of a two-thirds majority, the ANC established the GNU under President Nelson Mandela, which included members of the National Party and the Inkatha Freedom Party.

The GNU partly collapsed after the National Party's withdrawal in 1996, though power-sharing structures continued until the next election 1999, in which the ANC secured an outright majority.

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Zuma threatens to take court action against IEC

Meanwhile, Zuma told a media briefing on Saturday that his party had allegedly discovered evidence of vote rigging and fraud, and that it was demanding a rerun of the elections. He even threatened to take legal action against the IEC.

"The complaints that have been put forward are too serious, very serious," Zuma told reporters. "Nobody must force us to say these are the results when the results are not correct."

MK Leader Jacob Zuma adresses journalists at the National Result Centre in Midrand, South Africa
Former President Zuma (r.) still enjoys widespread support, especially in his home province of KwaZulu-NatalImage: Thuso Khumalo/DW

More than 20 smaller parties echoed Zuma's complaints in the media briefing. IEC Chairperson Mosotho Moepya confirmed that the electoral commission had received over 500 complaints over the conduct of the elections, and said that these were being addressed.

He said these included objections filed before results were out: Smaller parties alleged that some of their votes were not counted. 

Moepya responded to Zuma's threats of legal action by saying that the IEC was "determined to discharge our obligation as required by the constitution. We are going to respect them but we are going to do the work that we are meant to do."

"The constitution requires us to be a member of this commission, you must act without fear, favor and prejudice," he concluded.

The IEC had earlier acknowledged that one box of ballot papers had gone missing, stressing however, that the votes in that box had already been counted and would be reflected in the final tally.

Democracy — but only at the ballot box

With so much at stake for the future of the country, the voter turnout of just 58.64%, the lowest since 1994, came as a surprise for many. 

Even though meandering lines to the polls were observed in some parts of the country, former MP Zakhele Mbhele told DW that "(j)ust because there were snaking queues, long waiting times, and maybe historically high turnout in suburban voting stations, it doesn't mean the same happened in the townships where the critical mass of the electorate is."

Long queues at polling stations in South Africa: DW’s Dianne Hawker

The optics of long lines in certain areas could also be attributed to a R281 million (€13.8 million, $15 million) cut in the IEC budget, allowing for fewer resources to be allocated to the execution of the election.

Ominously, only about 22% of South Africans of voting age cast a vote for the ANC, which is now facing the uphill task of building a coalition government on behalf of every last South African.

Edited by: Ben Knight

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DW correspondent Thuso Khumalo in Johannesburg.
Thuso Khumalo Thuso Khumalo is a multimedia and broadcast journalist based in Johannesburg, South Africa.@thusokhums
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