ANC looks set to lose majority in watershed moment for South Africa

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South Africa’s ruling African National Congress party looks set to lose its majority for the first time since it swept to power at the end of apartheid, in a watershed moment for the country, as support for the former liberation movement collapsed below 50% in partial results.

With 41.1% of votes counted on Thursday night, South Africa was on the precipice of an era of national coalition government. The ANC had 42.6% of the vote, with the pro-business Democratic Alliance on 23.8%.

The uMkhonto we Sizwe (MK) party, launched in December by Jacob Zuma, who was forced to resign as president of South Africa in 2018 amid corruption allegations, was on 9.9. Since then he has waged a bitter feud with the current president, Cyril Ramaphosa, and his new party has upended the elections, even while Zuma himself was barred from running due to a 2021 prison sentence for contempt of court.

Not far behind the MK was the Marxist-inspired Economic Freedom Fighters on 9.4%

If the final results of Wednesday’s election are similar to early results, it would be a stunning blow for the ANC, which has led South Africa since it won the country’s first fully democratic elections under Nelson Mandela in 1994.

While the hollowing out of many state institutions during Zuma’s presidency from 2009 to 2018 ate away at the ANC’s support, it was still able to secure 57.5% of the vote in 2019 national elections.

South Africans’ mood has worsened since amid rising unemployment, water shortages and power cuts that have lasted up to 10 hours a day, and it may be this that finally costs the ruling party its majority.

“The ANC has lost the election,” said David Everatt, a professor at the University of Witwatersrand who conducted polls for the party from 1993 to 2021. “The ANC is not going to make its way up to 50% and no one else will either … but the ANC remains the largest party. This is their Rubicon moment and they have to show us who they are.”

If the ANC gets above 45% of votes, it can seek a coalition with parties that secured around 1%, Everatt said, while if it stays at around 43% it would probably seek one large partner.

“There are different factions within the ANC and they all want to have power, but the more populist ones would look immediately to the EFF as their natural ally and partner. The Ramaphosa … faction would hold their noses but possibly look at the DA.” Ramaphosa’s presidency would be on the line if the ANC’s vote share fell that low, he said.

The ANC chair, Gwede Mantashe, refused to be drawn on the possibility of a coalition. “We are still hopeful that we can actually break the 50% mark,” he said in an interview at the Electoral Commission of South Africa (IEC) national results centre in Midrand, between Johannesburg and Pretoria. “A coalition is a consequence. So you don’t plan for a consequence, you manage a consequence.”

Helen Zille, the chair of the Democratic Alliance’s federal council, would not rule in or out a coalition with the ANC but continued the party’s campaign warnings about a leftwing coalition. “We will look at the least bad for South Africa and try and promote that,” she said. “The very worst for South Africa would be ANC, MK and EFF. That would be a total disaster.”

She said she was confident that the DA would increase its vote share from the 20.8% it got in 2019.

Representatives of the EFF, which was founded and is led by the firebrand former ANC youth leader Julius Malema and wants to expropriate land without compensation, said they did not have anyone available to interview at the results centre.

The MK, which dates South Africa’s “national shame” to 1652 when the first Dutch settlement was established, emphasised its opposition to the ANC under its current leadership. “At this stage, the ANC of Cyril Ramaphosa, we will never form a coalition with it,” Sihle Ngubane, the party’s secretary general, said in an interview at the results centre.

He was ebullient about the early results showing it as the largest party in KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa’s second most populous and Zuma’s home province, with about 43% of the partially counted vote.

The election results so far have come from rural areas, which traditionally favour the ANC, said Tessa Dooms, a director at Rivonia Circle, a non-profit organisation. “Voter turnout in the big metros is probably going to be the deciding factor in this election,” she said.

“People have spoken about wanting change and I’m wondering if we have the kind of outcome that sees an ANC universe re-emerge, that has a Jacob Zuma on the one side and a Ramaphosa on the other,” Dooms said, noting that the DA was also performing better than expected. “How do you form a new South African politics, based on those two realities that are not necessarily very different from the past?”

Sy Mamabolo, the chief executive of the Independent Electoral Commission, said in a Thursday afternoon media briefing that the vote counting process had been slowed down due to a new third ballot paper, but that they would try to announce results before the legally mandated seven days. In 2019 the final results were announced on the Saturday after the Wednesday vote.


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