News | Political Parties / Election Analyses - Southern Africa An Electoral Thrashing for the ANC

Election results in South Africa point to an uncertain future for the Rainbow Nation


South African President Cyril Ramaphosa lowers his eyes during the announcement of the general election results at the National Results Operations Centre near Johannesburg, 2 June 2024. Photo: IMAGO / Kyodo News

“With these upcoming elections, we celebrate our democratic journey, and they determine the future we all desire.” With these words, Cyril Ramaphosa announced the date for South Africa’s national and provincial elections back in February 2024.

Britta Becker is Senior Advisor for Southern Africa at the Rosa Luxemburg Foundation in Berlin.

Fredson Guilengue works at the Rosa Luxemburg Foundation’s Johannesburg Office.

Ramaphosa’s hopes when calling the election could have been two-fold. As leader of the ruling African National Congress (ANC), one may have been that his own party would win a majority of votes. The second, as the President of South Africa, might have been that the results would provide some certainty about the political future of the country. However, none of the two seems to have materialized.

For 30 years, the ANC had been able to claim the absolute majority of votes in alliance with the Communist Party (SACP) and the Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU). Now, for the first time ever, the former liberation movement failed to retain that majority, throwing South African politics into disarray. The results will undoubtedly substantially impact the political landscape of South Africa, reshape economic policy, potentially change South Africa’s role in global diplomacy, as well as send a strong message to other liberation movements still in power in Southern Africa that the era of national liberation may be coming to an end.

A Long Time Coming

At the national level, final results show that the ruling ANC only managed to obtain 40 percent of the vote, followed by the Democratic Alliance (DA) with 22 percent, the newly formed Umkhonto we Sizwe (MK) party with 15 percent, the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) with 9.5 percent, the Inkatha Freedom Party (IFP) with 4 percent, and the Patriotic Alliance (PA) with 2 percent. According to the country’s constitution, over 50 percent of votes are required to form a government. Thus, the new government of South Africa will either be a coalition or a government of national unity.

The drubbing for the ANC comes as little surprise. The decline of the former liberation movement had been gradual since 2009, but began to take on landslide proportions at the beginning of this year with the founding of the MK party around former president Jacob Zuma. Prior to the elections, conservative polling had already suggested a poor performance for the ruling party, placing it at 40.2 percent just a month out. Zuma was always regarded as undeniably popular in KwaZulu-Natal and parts of Gauteng. However, MK’s strong performance in provinces such as Mpumalanga and Gauteng prove that he enjoys much higher popularity than previously believed.  

The ANC’s defeat is more than understandable given the social and economic situation in the country. Despite some progress since the end of apartheid, the ANC has failed to reduce the huge income gap and social inequality in the country. Social programmes, especially for the elderly and children, ensure the survival of a large part of the population, but they cannot hide the fact that unemployment, exceeding 50 percent among South Africans under 34, holds back economic progress for millions of citizens. While the government’s housing programme has provided shelter for millions, it has done little to address spatial injustice and segregation. The programme is also criticized for corruption, mismanagement, and shoddy construction.

Many South Africans are so disappointed, frustrated, and desperate about the future, that they no longer believe their vote can contribute to change.

South Africa is known throughout the continent and beyond for its progressive constitution, which grants unprecedented opportunities for the country’s progressive civil society to assert its interests. Nevertheless, struggles over distribution, corruption, crime, and self-enrichment through the looting of state resources, especially since Jacob Zuma’s presidency, have dampened enthusiasm for the country’s political system across all segments of society. Any hopes of economic advancement have long dissipated for many, while the fear of further economic decline is increasingly dominant.

The main problems plaguing the country — social inequality, unemployment, and crumbling infrastructure — have remained unchanged in recent years. On the contrary, the situation has worsened. Frustration is thus high, and was expressed in decreased voter turnout, which has declined by more than 20 percent over the past 20 years, having already dropped from 89 percent in 1999 to 66 percent in 2019. Out of the 42.3 million South Africans eligible to vote on 29 May 2024, around 64 percent had actually registered — an increase over previous elections, suggesting that many voters were motivated to participate in this pivotal election for the ANC.

Nevertheless, not even 59 percent of those registered actually exercised their right to vote, meaning out of the potential 42.3 million voters less than 16 million participated. This shows that many South Africans are so disappointed, frustrated, and desperate about the future, that they no longer believe their vote can contribute to change.

From National Liberator to Biggest Loser

As the leading force in South Africa’s fight against apartheid, the ANC has dominated South African politics since the first democratic elections in April 1994. Under the leadership of Nelson Mandela, the party secured almost 63 percent of the vote in 1994. The ANC’s popularity continued under Thabo Mbeki, who received about 66 percent of the votes in 1999. Even in 2004, despite unpopular economic liberalization policies, growing criticism, and population mobilization against the ANC’s questionable HIV and health policies, the ANC’s popularity remained unbroken, with the party’s result rising to nearly 70 percent.

The controversies and growing divisions within the ANC became apparent no later than a National Executive Committee meeting in Polokwane in December 2007, when Jacob Zuma was elected president of the ANC, defeating Thabo Mbeki. From that point on, the “old” ANC under Mbeki was increasingly crushed by Zuma’s “new” ANC. Not even accusations of corruption and rape diminished his popularity. Internal conflicts within the ANC ultimately led to Mbeki’s resignation in 2008, followed by a transitional government under Kgalema Motlanthe.

The ANC won the 2009 elections with 65.9 percent of the vote, making Jacob Zuma the fourth president of South Africa. Over the following years, the ANC’s support gradually declined, a fact attributable not only to shifts in voter preferences but also to increasing competition from other political parties. Besides the Congress of the People (COPE), a less influential party formed by Mbeki’s supporters who split from the ANC, the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) founded in 2013 became a rapidly growing opposition party. Headed up by former ANC Youth League leader Julius Malema, the EFF scored 6.4 percent in the 2014 parliamentary elections. South Africa’s second-largest party, the Democratic Alliance (DA), recorded its strongest result to date in that year with 22.2 percent of the vote. Nevertheless, the ANC remained almost unaffected, securing a stable majority in the usual manner, with only a slightly reduced share of 62.2 percent.

The hopes associated with Cyril Ramaphosa have long since dissipated, giving way to widespread cynicism as well as anger and despair.

Under Zuma, the negative effects of previously enacted neoliberal economic policies did not diminish as hoped. Instead, the party and the state itself were increasingly plundered by corrupt ANC officials. Whether through access to lucrative state contracts, competition for political offices, or paid positions within the ANC, especially at the local level, access to the state through the ANC led to rapid enrichment for many. At the same time, the number of political murders skyrocketed. The Zuma administration’s plundering of the state, known by the term “state capture”, and growing political pressure from within the party ranks led to Zuma’s resignation in 2018.

Cyril Ramaphosa, vice president under Zuma and president of the ANC since 2017, became head of state and was re-elected with 57.5 percent in the 2019 elections. The DA maintained its potential voter base at similar levels and garnered 21 percent of the vote, while the EFF significantly improved to 11 percent. The ANC’s fall below the 60 percent mark was initially met with a degree of hope. On the one hand, it was seen as a clear sign of criticism in light of the difficult economic situation and high corruption, and on the other hand, as a clear vote of confidence in Cyril Ramaphosa’s ability to improve the situation. Commentators also saw the strengthening of opposition parties as a sign of more democratic political competition.

The hopes associated with Cyril Ramaphosa have long since dissipated, giving way to widespread cynicism as well as anger and despair. The number of corruption scandals has worsened, especially in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, also because those responsible, including Jacob Zuma, were not held accountable. Everyone looks out for themselves, while personal enrichment at the expense of others, crime, and xenophobia weaken social cohesion. Inequality in the country has reached record levels. South Africa’s economic and social situation is more than disastrous, with essential parts of the water and energy infrastructure repeatedly collapsing. Government attempts to remedy the situation have so far been largely unsuccessful.

Storm Clouds on the Horizon

These elections may represent a shift in many ways for South Africa. It will be the first time that the country will be governed by a coalition government. A coalition with the EFF and one or two other smaller parties would potentially result in more radical policies, with a strong emphasis on redistributionist socioeconomic policies including land reform, social grants, and free education. In terms of South Africa’s role in global affairs, an ANC–EFF coalition would further expand South Africa’s pivot towards the East, favouring stronger cooperation with counties like China and Russia and the country’s continued support to the Palestinian and Cuban causes. South Africa’s role in alternative multilateral blocs like BRICS+ may potentially grow.

However, in the event of a coalition between the ANC and the DA, the most likely outcome would be more centre-right socioeconomic policies. This would entail deepening neoliberal privatization, worsening inequality, and above all, growing nationalist exclusion and division. South Africa would move closer to its traditional Western partners and reduce significantly its role in BRICS+.  Many are hoping for such a grand coalition so as to provide more stability to the country, despite the negative outcome for marginalized populations. In contrast to the MK and the EFF, the DA also might not push for the removal of Ramaphosa from the presidency.   

In the case of a potential ANC–MK coalition, not much would change in terms of current policies. However, this coalition would potentially lead to attempts to weaken the country’s institutions, mainly the judiciary, in order to protect Zuma and his allies from the hands of the law. It could be argued that the MK party consists mostly of the corrupt breakaway part of the ANC who are desperate to stop prosecution of individuals accused of corruption and state capture, especially Zuma himself.

The thrashing delivered to the ANC in this election is most certainly sounding alarm bells in Mozambique, Angola and Zimbabwe, sending a clear message that radical change is needed in the way former liberation movements approach politics.

Finally, the worst scenario for the ANC and South Africa  would be  no agreement at all and with it fresh elections. This scenario, although less likely, would prolong the current state of uncertainty and may lead to a political crisis.

Not surprising, but all the more bitter and disappointing for the Rainbow Nation, is the deepening ethnic divide in the country. Black immigrants have been blamed for the deteriorating economic and social situation across party lines for years. Brutal xenophobic attacks have been recurring since 2005. Thankfully, however, and contrary to what some analysts anticipated, xenophobic narratives did not take central stage in this election.

Nevertheless, with view to the performance of the MK and the PA in particular, ethnicity and race, as well as migration, were major factors. MK’s base is fundamentally Zulu, although it also receives support elsewhere. The PA’s base is primarily found among the marginalized coloured population, mainly in the Western Cape Province. Whatever coalition will rule South Africa, one thing is for sure: the extent of racially motivated violence has reached alarming levels, and it does not seem that any political force is willing or able to curb it.

The thrashing delivered to the ANC in this election is most certainly sounding alarm bells in Mozambique, Angola and Zimbabwe, sending a clear message that radical change is needed in the way former liberation movements approach politics. Invoking historical legacies will not suffice in an era when people’s demands are overwhelmingly focused on socioeconomic issues like poverty and inequality, governance issues like transparency and anticorruption, as well as ecological issues and the climate crisis. The ANC will almost certainly manage to hang on to power for at least one more legislative cycle, but the future is clear: business as usual will no longer suffice.