South Africa’s governing African National Congress (ANC) took 46% of the vote in municipal elections, the final count showed on Thursday, the party’s worst election outcome since taking power at the end of white minority rule in 1994.
Voters punished the party for repeated corruption scandals and poor basic services in areas that have traditionally been ANC strongholds.
The party has been steadily losing support and winning less than 50% of the vote this week raised the possibility – albeit still remote – that South Africa could be governed by a party other than the ANC in the not-too-distant future.
Even a decade ago it would have been unthinkable that the legacy party of Nelson Mandela could be in opposition or forced into a coalition with smaller parties.
Figures from the electoral commission put the ANC’s biggest rival, the Democratic Alliance (DA), second on 22% of the vote and the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) third on 10%.
At the last municipal elections in 2016 the ANC got 54%, at the time its lowest vote share since apartheid.
Despite the ANC’s falling popularity, rival parties have not yet been able to capitalize.
The DA is still regarded by many as a party for South Africa’s economically privileged white minority. The EFF, a fledgling Marxist party, is prone to radical and sometimes violent rhetoric that does not appeal to a broad range of voters.
As well as trying to arrest the slide in its overall support, the ANC had hoped to regain control over metropolitan areas it lost to opposition-led coalitions in 2016 including Johannesburg and Pretoria.
But its vote share in both cities fell further to roughly one-third, meaning it will have to form coalitions with smaller parties if it wants to control local government there.
In the municipality that includes Durban, which was rocked by arson and looting in July, the ANC’s share of the vote fell from 56% in 2016 to 42% this time around.
The ANC’s vote share has consistently declined in local elections, often seen as a prime opportunity for the electorate to lodge protest votes, from a high of 65% under former President Thabo Mbeki in 2006.
But the unexpectedly large drop at these elections is a blow to President Cyril Ramaphosa, who has tried to restore confidence in the ANC since becoming party leader in 2017 and faces a leadership contest late next year.
ANC officials acknowledged on Wednesday that the latest result was a message from voters that the party needed to “shape up.”
“It is an unambiguous signal to the ANC from the electorate … people are disappointed in the ANC,” the party’s Deputy Secretary General Jessie Duarte said.
EFF leader Julius Malema, a former ANC youth leader, told reporters on Thursday that the ANC dropping below 50% made him “the happiest man”.
The DA’s John Steenhuisen said his party’s goal was to unseat the ANC at the next general election in 2024.
This content appears as provided to The Globe by the originating wire service. It has not been edited by Globe staff.