South African Voters Reject the Party That Freed Them From Apartheid

South African Voters Reject the Party That Freed Them From Apartheid

The African National Congress lost its political stranglehold on South Africa after election results on Saturday showed that with almost all of the votes counted, the party had received only about 40 percent, falling short of winning an absolute majority for the first time since vanquishing Africa’s last white-led regime 30 years ago.

With South Africans facing one of the world’s highest unemployment rates, shortages of electricity and water, and rampant crime, the governing party still bested its competitors but could not sustain the nearly 58 percent of the vote it won in the last election, in 2019.

The staggering nosedive for Africa’s oldest liberation movement put one of the continent’s most stable countries and its largest economy onto an uneasy and uncharted course.

The party, which rose to international acclaim on the shoulders of Nelson Mandela, will now have two weeks to cobble together a government by partnering with one or more rival parties that have derided it as corrupt and vowed never to form an alliance with it.

“I’m actually shocked,” said Maropene Ramokgopa, one of the top officials in the African National Congress, or A.N.C. “It has opened our eyes to say, ‘Look, we are missing something, somewhere.’”

South Africa’s president, Cyril Ramaphosa, who leads the A.N.C., faces a grave threat to his ambition of serving a second term. He will be forced to summon the negotiating skills that famously helped him broker the end of apartheid, and pull together his highly factionalized party, which is likely to disagree on which party to ally with.

Detractors are expected lay the blame for this tumble at Mr. Ramaphosa’s feet and could try to replace him, possibly with his deputy, Paul Mashatile. The party’s previous biggest drop from one election to the next was 4.7 percent, in 2019.

“I didn’t expect Ramaphosa, in five years, to make things worse than what he found,” said Khulu Mbatha, an A.N.C. veteran who has been critical of the party for not tackling corruption aggressively enough.

The parties must figure out their coalition arrangements before the 400-member National Assembly is required to convene and elect the president. There were 52 parties in the national election, and the number of seats that parties receive in the Assembly is based on the percentage of votes they won. Without an absolute majority, the A.N.C. can no longer handpick the country’s leader.

“South Africa is going to go through teething problems as it enters this era,” said Pranish Desai, a data analyst with Good Governance Africa, a nonpartisan organization. “Some of them might be significant, but voters decided they want this.”

Because of the big gap to reach 50 percent, the A.N.C. cannot just pull in smaller parties that would have allowed it to maintain its dominance in government, political analysts said. Instead, it will have to look to some of the bigger parties it traded bitter barbs with during the campaign.

A big question is whether the A.N.C. will embrace or shun the new party led by Jacob Zuma, Mr. Ramaphosa’s archenemy and predecessor as president and A.N.C. leader.

Mr. Zuma — who was forced to resign in 2018 because of corruption scandals — felt betrayed by the party and Mr. Ramaphosa, his former deputy, and helped start a new party, uMkhonto weSizwe, or M.K., which was the name of the A.N.C.’s armed wing during the struggle against apartheid. Mr. Zuma was barred from running for Parliament, but M.K. had a remarkable showing at the ballot box, analysts said, siphoning crucial votes from the A.N.C. and other parties.

“Of course it has actually surprised the A.N.C.,” Nomvula Mokonyane, one of the A.N.C.’s top officials, said of M.K.’s performance. “It is beyond what we expected.”

Officials with Mr. Zuma’s party have said that they are willing to work with any party, meaning that it is not out of the question that Mr. Zuma would reunite with his former friends, now foes — though this could be humiliating for the A.N.C.

Another potential ally for the A.N.C. is the Democratic Alliance, which drew the second largest share of the vote. Some A.N.C. members have accused the Democratic Alliance of promoting policies that would essentially take the country back to apartheid. Others view a partnership between the two parties as a natural fit because the Democratic Alliance’s market-based view of the economy aligns closely with Mr. Ramaphosa’s.

But entering this grand coalition could prove politically risky for Mr. Ramaphosa because the Democratic Alliance has been staunchly against race-based policies intended to increase Black employment and wealth. The Democratic Alliance has also pushed issues that cater to the right-wing white population.

The A.N.C. could instead look to the Economic Freedom Fighters, a party that was started a decade ago by one of the A.N.C.’s expelled youth leaders, Julius Malema. Analysts said that this partnership could spook big business and international investors because of the Economic Freedom Fighters’ insistence on nationalizing mines and other businesses, and taking land from white owners to redistribute to Black South Africans.

But such a coalition would be attractive to some A.N.C. members because Mr. Malema was one of their own, and there is a large segment of the party that is ideologically aligned with the Economic Freedom Fighters’ philosophy on wealth redistribution.

There is fear that the country is headed toward political chaos that will shift focus from its many problems. Coalition governments on the local level have proved unstable, with leaders changing on a whim and infighting so bitter that lawmakers fail to get anything done for their constituents.

The country has faced dire economic and social challenges, and many South Africans question whether they truly have been liberated from apartheid. For many people, this election represented a chance for a reset on par with the transition to democracy a generation ago.

During the election, the slogan “2024 is our 1994” circulated on social media and on campaign posters, especially among young South Africans.

The watershed election ended the dominance of a party that spearheaded the fight against colonialism, which reshaped Africa in the second half of the 20th century. The banning of the party by the racist apartheid government sent many of its leaders into exile around the world. Stories of the torture and hardship these party members endured helped turn many of them into heroes in the eyes of South Africa and the world — a reputation that kept many voters who grew up under apartheid undyingly loyal to the party.

But that loyalty waned as many South Africans failed to see their material conditions improve significantly under decades of A.N.C. leadership — while many of the party’s leaders amassed huge wealth. Younger South Africans who did not live under white rule have become a growing part of the electorate, and they tend to be less interested in the party’s aura than its performance in government.

Some of the country’s neighbors in southern Africa are governed by former liberation movements that are close allies of the A.N.C. and that also have seen declining electoral support. The result of South Africa’s election could portend the downfall of other liberation parties, analysts said.

Mavuso Msimang, a veteran A.N.C. member, said that when he drove past the long lines outside polling stations on Election Day, he worried the party would be punished for its failure to deliver basic services, like electricity.

“I said to myself, ‘You know, these people are not queuing to vote to say thank you to the A.N.C. for taking the lights away,’” he said. “It was clear that these people were not going to vote for us.”

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