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Why did Nelson Mandela's ANC lose its majority in South Africa's elections, and what comes next?

Mandela's party could lose majority
Nelson Mandela's party could lose its majority in South Africa 02:38

Johannesburg — On April 27, 1994, Black and White South Africans voted side by side for a new government for the first time in the country's history.  Nelson Mandela's party, the African National Congress (ANC) had defeated apartheid and ushered in a new democratic era.

The ANC swept to power with ease and Mandela became South Africa's first Black president to the delight of a mostly adoring country. Now, 30 years later, the party that brought democracy to South Africa has been defeated by it.

National election results announced over the weekend saw the ANC lose the electoral majority it had won in every round of voting since Mandela came to power on that historic day three decades ago.

Why did the ANC lose its long-held majority?

As they headed to the polls to cast their verdict on the ANC for the seventh time since 1994, South Africans had a lot to complain about.

An African National Congress (ANC) supporter holds a poster of former President Nelson Mandela during the ANC Election Manifesto launch at the Moses Mabhida Stadium in Durban, South Africa, in a Feb. 24, 2024 file photo. RAJESH JANTILAL/AFP/Getty

A stubbornly high unemployment rate, which officially hit 32.9% last year but in reality is much higher; persistent economic inequalities; rampant corruption and a lack of public service delivery, particularly in poorer areas, all contributed to the dethroning of the ANC.

Then there were the frequent power cuts. Intermittent outages have been a near-constant for well over a year.

There's also a soaring crime rate, with 130 murders and 80 rapes documented every single day in the last quarter of 2023. 

Protests over "shocking imbalance" of COVID vaccine distribution in South Africa 02:56

Together, all these factors dented confidence in the long-ruling party, and the result was a slap in the face for the ANC, which garnered just 40.2 percent of the votes — well below the more than 50% needed to remain in power.

What comes next for South Africa?

Instead, the ANC has two weeks to negotiate a new power-sharing government with members of other parties. This could take the form of either a coalition with a smaller party, or a government of national unity, which would see multiple parties get roles in a unified cabinet.

The options available could not be more different. 

The second largest share of the votes, 21.8%, went to the official opposition Democratic Alliance (DA), which has been on the political scene since the dawn of South Africa's democracy and historically was a merger between the former apartheid rulers, the National Party, and liberal Whites who participated in the old apartheid regime but criticized the country's racist policies. 

The DA wants to liberalize the national economy, including a move toward greater privatization, but it is dogged by a credibility issue — perceived by many Black South Africans to be a mostly white, middle-class party that doesn't care about the poor.

Then there's the uMkhonto we Sizwe (MK) party, which exploded onto the political scene at the end of last year.  It's made up of former disgruntled ANC members and led by the disgraced former President of South Africa Jacob Zuma, who faces multiple corruption charges and was already sent to prison briefly in 2021 for defying a court order to testify at a corruption inquiry. 

As a convicted felon, Zuma cannot run for office, but he remains the face of the party and helped MK snatch 14.9% of the vote away from the ANC by appealing to Zulu nationalism. 

Like every election since democracy arrived in South Africa, this one has been declared objectively free and fair by observers. But that hasn't stopped Zuma casting doubt on the results, including with public claims of vote-rigging, without providing any evidence.  

On Sunday, the former leader issued an ominous warning.

"The results are not correct," he said. "Results should not be declared. If you're declaring, you're provoking us. Don't start trouble."

MK's manifesto is anti-constitutional. It speaks about nationalising the SA Reserve Bank and holding a referendum on scrapping the constitution completely.

The attacks on the election results appear aimed at denting the credibility of the vote and creating uncertainty. But Zuma is also fighting for his survival — desperate to avoid his corruption trial which could very well send him back to jail.

Lagging behind MK was another ANC breakaway party, the Economic Freedom Front (EFF), which argues that the ANC has not redressed the racial economic imbalances of apartheid. It wants to redistribute land to the less well-off and nationalise mines, banks and other key parts of the economy.  But it made no gains in this election, instead dropping to 9.5% for a fourth place finish.

South Africa Goes to The Polls
An EFF poster is seen outside a polling station in Hopetown, Northern Cape province, South Africa, May 29, 2024. Jeremy Suyker/Bloomberg/Getty

The ANC could attempt to form a coalition with either the DA or the EFF and another smaller party, or even with MK, although it's unlikely that Zuma would agree to this unless the ANC boots out its leader, incumbent South African President Cyril Ramaphosa, which seems just as unlikely, at least for now.

The unity option — a possible reset for South Africa?

As an alternative, a government of national unity would see a grand multi-party coalition, and possibly provide a reset for South Africa. 

Despite this country's multitude of problems and a poor voter turnout compared to previous years, democracy still holds strong in South Africa. 

The election was mostly peaceful and South Africans actually sent a clear message by giving no single party a mandate to govern. 

Gracious in defeat, Ramaphosa said the people's will was clear, and he accepted the results.

"Our people have spoken, whether we like it or not," said Ramaphosa. "Through their votes they have demonstrated clearly and plainly that our democracy is strong, that our democracy is robust and enduring."

Atmosphere At The National Results Operations Centre At Gallagher Estate On Day 04 In South Africa
Mosotho Moepya (left), chairman of the Election Commission, announces the results of the election and declares them free and fair before handing over to President Cyril Ramaphosa (center) at the National Result Operation Centre (ROC) at Gallagher Estate, June 2, 2024 in Midrand, South Africa. Sydney Seshibedi/Gallo Images/Getty

He said it seemed clear that South Africans want their leaders, from across the political spectrum, to find common ground and work together.

The cheerful goodwill could evaporate to some degree amid the cut and thrust of coalition-making, but the process has revealed a constitutional democracy that's more robust than the chaos Zuma's party seems to be hoping for. 

The next 15 days will be crucial in shaping a government that serves the people of South Africa, and hopefully returns some trust in its political leaders.

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