How the ANC Lost By Winning South Africa’s Elections

South Africans went to the polls last week in the fifth election since the introduction of multi-racial elections. As expected, the ruling African National Council (ANC) won the national election handily as they have in all the past five elections. However, the results across the country paint a slightly different picture for the electoral future of South Africa and possibly the ANC in particular.

With 62% of the vote – 40 points above their nearest competitor – it would be seem paradoxical to call the ANC’s victory anything less than triumphant but that does not take into account how the ANC has gotten here. The results mark the lowest result for the ANC since the first election in 1994 and another drop in the polls from the last election in 2009. This has been the trend since the height on the ANC in 1999; overwhelming results but steadily declining.

The decline was not as much as other political parties and some political analysts expected. The past few years have seen a significant increase in the number of protests across the country against political corruption and the lack of economic progress, especially for Black South Africans whose unemployment rate is estimated at 25% to 42% depending on the survey. Termed service delivery protests, they have increasingly turned radical and at times violent. Unfortunately, there has been no lack of developments to protest about. While the economic and social situation has improved for Black South Africans since the end of apartheid, they still lag significantly behind not just Whites, but other racial groups as well. South Africa falls in the middle of international corruption rankings but has seen its ranking steadily fall as domestic surveys show that South Africans feel that corruption in the public sector is getting worse.

Indeed, high profile scandals such as the recent revelation that President Jacob Zuma spent $23 million of taxpayer money on extensive upgrades to his estate which included the building of a swimming pool, amphitheater and visitor center under the guise of security upgrades have not helped this view. Neither has the lackluster response of the ANC to the 2012 violent crackdown by the army on striking miners at Lonmin mines near Marikana that left 44 people dead. Such high profile cases of seeming indifference by big players in the ANC to the concerns of their base continues to fuel not just protests, but a stead drift away from the party.

This can be seen in who the real winners of the election are – the opposition Democratic Alliance (DA) and Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF). The EFF is a new party, founded by the controversial former head of the ANC Youth League Julius Malema in the wake of the Marikana massacre. Coming from the far-left, the EFF advocates for the nationalization of the mining and finance sectors, primary health care and education for all South Africans, and Zimbabwe-style land reform. In many ways it reflects the policies and rhetoric the ANC started with but ultimately abandoned once they came to power. But gaining just over 6% of the vote on their debut, the EFF demonstrated that they – and their more radical politics – may wind up being a real force to reckon with, especially in the mineral heavy North West and Limpopo provinces which saw the EFF come in second and become the official opposition to the ANC.

On the other hand there is the centrist DA which has been the official opposition nationally since 1999. Despite their characterization of being a party for Whites, the party has steadily increased their share of the vote, particularly among urban voters. In this election while backing several youthful candidates, the DA increased their share of the vote from 22% to 31% in influential Guateng province, home of the country’s largest city Johannesburg. Overall, they garnered just over 22% of the national vote, adding more than a million voters to their ranks across all racial groups in the country since 2009. Perhaps more telling, they increased their strong majority in Western Cape where they have been the ruling party since 2009, giving them a strong mandate and reinforcing their credibility in one of the most racially diverse provinces in South Africa. Despite their characterization, it is getting harder to portray the DA as an option only for Whites even if that does remain a solid portion of their base.

Politically, the EFF and DA are very different parties that appeal to very different sectors of society. But their combined presence made the ANC fight to keep a majority in Guateng province, eventually pulling in only 53% of the vote. While a multi-party democracy, South Africa has essentially been a single party state by default since 1994; that largely remains the case today but it is clear that the electorate is gradually shifting towards a more pluralist political landscape. As it is, the ANC has lost the two-thirds supermajority needed for major changes such as amending the constitution; for major policy changes such as this, the ANC will no longer be able to go it alone and will need help from with the EFF or the DA.

This puts the ANC is a position it has never been in since the end of apartheid. How they handle it, and whether it will spur some much needed renewal within the party, is the real test they face over the next five years.