ANC loses majority in South African elections for first time since apartheid

Party, which has led international legal campaign against Israel over war with Hamas, must now build coalition to remain in power after ruling alone for three decades

The latest election results are displayed at the Results Operation Centre (ROC) in Midrand, Johannesburg, South Africa, Friday, May 31, 2024. (AP Photo/Themba Hadebe)
The latest election results are displayed at the Results Operation Centre (ROC) in Midrand, Johannesburg, South Africa, Friday, May 31, 2024. (AP Photo/Themba Hadebe)

JOHANNESBURG, South Africa — The African National Congress party lost its parliamentary majority in a historic election result Saturday that puts South Africa on a new political path for the first time since the end of the apartheid system of white minority rule 30 years ago.

With more than 99 percent of votes counted, the once-dominant ANC had received just over 40% in Wednesday’s election, well short of the majority it had held since the famed all-race vote of 1994 that ended apartheid and brought it to power under Nelson Mandela. The final results are still to be formally declared by the independent electoral commission that ran the election, but the ANC cannot pass 50%.

At the start of the election, the commission said it would formally declare the results by Sunday, but that could come earlier.

While opposition parties have hailed the result as a momentous breakthrough for a country struggling with deep poverty and inequality, the ANC remained the biggest party by some way. However, it will now likely need to look for a coalition partner or partners to remain in the government and reelect South African President Cyril Ramaphosa for a second and final term. Parliament elects the South African president after national elections.

“The way to rescue South Africa is to break the ANC’s majority and we have done that,” said main opposition leader John Steenhuisen.

The way forward promises to be complicated for Africa’s most advanced economy, and there’s no coalition on the table yet.

Voters line up to cast their ballot for general elections in Alexandra, near Johannesburg, South Africa, Wednesday, May 29, 2024. (AP Photo/Themba Hadebe)

Steenhuisen’s Democratic Alliance party was on around 21% of the vote. The new MK Party of former president Jacob Zuma, who has turned against the ANC he once led, was third with just over 14% of the vote in the first election it has contested. The Economic Freedom Fighters was in fourth with just over 9%.

More than 50 parties contested the election, many of them with tiny shares of the vote, but the DA and MK appear to be the most obvious for the ANC to approach, given how far it is from a majority. Which coalition the ANC pursues is the urgent focus now, given Parliament needs to sit and elect a president within 14 days of the final election results being officially declared. A flurry of negotiations are set to take place and they will likely be complicated.

Steenhuisen has said his centrist party is open to discussions. The MK Party said one of their conditions for any agreement was that Ramaphosa be removed as ANC leader and president. That underlined the fierce political battle between Zuma, who resigned as South African president under a cloud of corruption allegations in 2018, and Ramaphosa, who replaced him.

“We are willing to negotiate with the ANC, but not the ANC of Cyril Ramaphosa,” MK Party spokesperson Nhlamulo Ndlela said.

MK and the far-left Economic Freedom Fighters have called for parts of the economy to be nationalized. The Democratic Alliance is viewed as a business-friendly party and analysts say an ANC-DA coalition would be more welcomed by foreign investors, although there are questions over whether it is politically viable considering the DA has been the most critical opposition party for years.

An ANC-DA coalition “would be a marriage of two drunk people in Las Vegas. It will never work,” Gayton McKenzie, the leader of the smaller Patriotic Alliance party, told South African media.

Despite the uncertainty, South African opposition parties were hailing the new political picture as a much-needed change for the country of 62 million, which is Africa’s most developed, but also one of the most unequal in the world.

South Africa has widespread poverty and extremely high levels of unemployment and the ANC has struggled to raise the standard of living for millions. The official unemployment rate is 32%, one of the highest in the world, and the poverty disproportionately affects Black people, who make up 80% of the population and have been the core of the ANC’s support for years.

Leader of the main opposition Democratic Alliance John Steenhuisen, right, shakes hands with ANC’s Chairman. Gwede Mantashe, left, on a visit to the Results Operation Centre (ROC) in Midrand, Johannesburg, South Africa, Friday May 31, 2024. (AP Photo/Themba Hadebe)

The ANC has also been blamed — and now punished by voters — for a failure in basic government services that impacts millions and leaves many without water, electricity or proper housing.

Nearly 28 million South Africans were registered to vote and turnout is expected to be around 60%, according to figures from the independent electoral commission.

South Africa maintained diplomatic relations with Israel after the ANC took power in 1994, despite Israel’s significant cooperation with the apartheid regime. However, owing to its identification with the Palestinian national movement, the party has been fiercely critical of Israel over the years due to its policies toward the Palestinians.

South Africa’s agents Vusimuzi Madonsela, seated right, and Cornelius Scholtz, seated second left, talk prior to the start of hearings at the International Court of Justice, in The Hague, Netherlands, Thursday, May 16, 2024. (AP Photo/Peter Dejong)

Following Hamas’s October 7 terror onslaught that triggered the war in Gaza, the South African parliament voted to cut off relations with Israel until the fighting ends. In March, the country’s foreign minister, Naledi Pandor, said South African citizens serving in the IDF would be arrested upon returning to the country.

In December, South Africa filed a case against Israel in the International Court of Justice, claiming that Israel is committing genocide in the Gaza Strip. In its ruling, the ICJ ordered Israel to take actions necessary to prevent violations of the 1948 Genocide Convention, but did not order Israel to its offensive in Gaza, which began following Hamas’s October 7 attack in which terrorists killed some 1,200 people, mostly civilians, and kidnapped 252.

Following a request by South Africa in May, the ICJ gave an ambiguous order calling on Israel to halt operations in Rafah, Gaza’s southernmost city, that risk destruction of civilian population. The judges disagreed between themselves regarding whether the order requires Israel to immediately halt its ongoing operation in the city.

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