South Africa is slowly souring over its ruling party

JACOB Zuma, former president of South Africa, liked to say that the African National Congress (ANC) would reign until Jesus’ return. Given his party’s performance in the November 1 local elections, “Christ live! would be an understandable reaction. The ANC won around 46% of the vote – the first time it has fallen below 50% in a national ballot since the end of apartheid in 1994. The results suggest that if there is to be a second coming, there is is unlikely to be by Nelson Mandela’s party.

The ANCThe slip has two causes. First, black South Africans, who make up 80% of the population and constitute the ANC, were more likely to stay at home than minorities, who tend to support other parties. The participation rate in the townships, which are almost all black, was 40 to 45%, estimates Dawie Scholtz, a psephologist. On the other hand, 55 to 65% of voters in the suburbs, more mixed, went to the polls. The second is that more black South Africans who voted chose parties other than the ANC.

Most South Africans believe that the ANC is no longer a party that will improve their lot. Polls show jobs are the most pressing problem. More than a third of the overall workforce – and two-fifths of the black population – are unemployed. Real GDP per person is lower than it was 15 years ago. Food prices are around 10% higher than a year ago. Corruption, endemic under Mr. Zuma, continues despite the best intentions of his successor, Cyril Ramaphosa. Utilities such as electricity, water, schools and hospitals are collapsing.

A fragmented policy replaces ANC hegemony. The official opposition, the Democratic Alliance (AD), won just over 21% of the vote, a higher share than some party members feared, but down from its peak of 27% in previous local elections in 2016. He again had some hard to woo black people, many of whom are suspicious of what they see as a “white party.” At the same time, he lost some long-standing voters, in particular Afrikaners (mainly white people of Dutch origin) and “colored” South Africans (mixed race). Some of these groups voted for identity parties such as Freedom Front Plus, a right-wing Afrikaner group. If Mr. Ramaphosa’s faction in the ANC and the AD constitute the center of South African politics, it does not hold.

Other identity and populist parties have also made progress. In parts of KwaZulu-Natal, home to many members of South Africa’s largest ethnic group, the Zulus, the ANC lost ground to the Inkatha Freedom Party, a Zulu nationalist group. Part of that change reflected in part the events of July, when mass unrest erupted after Mr. Zuma, a Zulu, was imprisoned for defying a court ruling – riots Mr. Ramaphosa has denounced as “Acts of violence based on ethnic mobilization”. Mr Zuma was quickly released on medical parole, although he certainly looked cheerful when he showed up to vote with one of his wives.

Elsewhere, including in the city of Durban, far-left economic freedom fighters (FEP) under the fiery Julius Malema got support. In Johannesburg, the actionHER party, a right-wing populist formation founded just last year by Herman Mashaba, the former AD mayor of the city, won about 16% of the vote.

All of this means that under South Africa’s proportional representation system, coalitions will be needed to rule more cities. As in 2016, there was no absolute winner in Johannesburg, Port Elizabeth or Pretoria. The same is true today for Durban, once a ANC bastion. The ANC is increasingly a rural party. While it generally does better in parliamentary elections, these results suggest that there may be a nationwide coalition after the next one, in 2024.

This could mean a pragmatic and moderate alliance between the ANC and the AD. But not necessarily. Mr. Ramaphosa may not make it to the poll. His many adversaries within the ANC could try to blame him for the poor results this week, although polls show he is more popular than his party. And his party may prefer to work with smaller rivals like the FEP rather than the AD. If so, South Africa will be dragged into the populist left which scares investors.

The parties in power in southern Africa can seem irremovable. Angola, Botswana, Mozambique, Namibia, and Zimbabwe are all ruled by the same parties that came to power after white rule ended. But not all are popular; some rigged elections to stay in power. In Malawi and Zambia, voters recently elected the ruling opposition parties. The ANC considers himself exceptional because he negotiated the end of apartheid. But these results show that if he does not improve people’s lives, his hegemony will end. â– 

This article appeared in the Middle East and Africa section of the print edition under the title “Hegemon no more”

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