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Election officials count ballots after the closing of the local government elections, at a farm in Alewynspoort, outside Johannesburg, South Africa on Nov. 1, 2021.SIPHIWE SIBEKO/Reuters

South African voters have delivered a severe blow to the country’s ruling party, the African National Congress, pushing it below the 50-per-cent mark in local elections this week for the first time in any nationwide vote since apartheid.

The ANC, the anti-apartheid movement that took power under Nelson Mandela in 1994, suffered its worst result in the democratic era as voters punished it for corruption scandals, poor services, electricity shortages, rising unemployment and a stagnant economy.

With the majority of votes counted by Tuesday night, the ANC stood at 46 per cent, a drop of eight percentage points from the last municipal election in 2016. It was a continuation of the long-term decline for the liberation party that had once captured nearly 70 per cent of the vote at its peak in 2004.

For the ANC, disaster was averted in Monday’s election only because the main opposition parties failed to make any significant gains. The biggest opposition party, the liberal Democratic Alliance, won about 22 per cent of the vote, while the left-wing Economic Freedom Fighters were at 10 per cent.

The results are a signal of a new era in South African politics, with elections becoming more competitive and major cities increasingly likely to be governed by informal coalitions of two or more parties.

Polarized and divided parties leave South African politics in turmoil

The drop in ANC support is likely to put new pressure on President Cyril Ramaphosa, creating an opportunity for his rivals in the party to agitate for changes in the party’s leadership or its policies. Some of his critics have complained that his policies are too supportive of business and not sufficiently radical on the redistribution of land and economic power to benefit the country’s impoverished majority.

But the election also revealed a growing disillusionment with all of the main political parties. Voter turnout fell to a historic low of just 47 per cent, while many voters opted to support smaller parties or populist new parties such as Action SA, whose leader has called for foreign migrants to be banned from some businesses.

The new realities could be seen in Johannesburg, the biggest city in South Africa and one of the biggest on the African continent. The ANC received just 34 per cent of the vote in Johannesburg, the DA won 25 per cent and the new party, Action SA, finished a strong third with 17 per cent.

This was a sharp decline for the two biggest parties, while Action SA lured voters away from both of the larger parties. There will now be intense negotiations for the right to govern the city, with the new party becoming the likely kingmaker in the coalition talks.

Of the 39 million eligible voters in South Africa, only 26 million registered to vote in this election. And of those, only about 12 million cast ballots.

A survey by Ipsos, a market research company, found that almost half of South African voters were dissatisfied with the party that they had supported in the last municipal election in 2016. It was a clear sign of the rising turmoil and unpredictability in the country’s political climate.

The ANC’s head of elections, Transport Minister Fikile Mbalula, said the election results were a “warning shot” to the ruling party. The low voter turnout is a “danger to democracy” and a sign of people disengaging from the political system, he told News24, a local media outlet.

One of the biggest factors in the low turnout is the poor economy. On a per-capita basis, the South African GDP has declined for the past seven years. Frustrations exploded in July when thousands of people looted and destroyed shopping malls and other businesses in a rampage that led to more than 340 deaths.

Another key factor is a widening factional split within the ANC, where Mr. Ramaphosa is facing an open challenge from many supporters of former president Jacob Zuma. The division in the party may have dampened the turnout and deterred some of Mr. Zuma’s loyalists from voting for the ANC, even though he officially endorsed the party during the campaign.

Mr. Zuma, who is currently on trial for corruption, fraud and racketeering, was forced to resign as president in 2018 as a result of a mounting corruption scandal. He was jailed briefly in July for refusing to testify at an official inquiry into state corruption. But many of his supporters are still seeking to topple his successor, Mr. Ramaphosa.

Mr. Zuma’s daughter, Dudu Zuma-Sambudla, tweeted on Tuesday that the election results were “the final nail in the ANC coffin” if the party fails to get rid of Mr. Ramaphosa.

On Monday, she retweeted a post by a South African who said that the low voter turnout was a sign that South Africans are refusing to support Mr. Ramaphosa. The post called him an askari – the term used in the apartheid era for defectors from the liberation movement who gave help to the apartheid forces.

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