South Africa's ANC suffers worst election setback since end of apartheid

A resident votes at a polling station in Alexandria Township outside Johannesburg, South Africa, on Nov 1, 2021. PHOTO: NYTIMES

JOHANNESBURG (NYTIMES) - The African National Congress (ANC), South Africa's once-vaunted liberation movement, suffered its worst election showing since coming to power in 1994, according to the results of municipal elections released Thursday (Nov 4).

Facing widespread anger over corruption and collapsing services, the party won less than 50 per cent of the vote nationally Monday, the first time in its history that it has failed to cross that threshold.

Voters went to the polls Monday to choose councillors and mayors to govern towns and cities, but they used the opportunity to vent their grievances over national issues, including record unemployment and anger over the handling of Covid-19.

The result was a resounding rebuke for the ANC, particularly in urban areas. Significantly low voter turnout was a further indictment of the ANC and of the main opposition parties, with voters choosing smaller, identity-driven parties.

After municipal setbacks in 2016, ANC leaders promised to "learn from our mistakes," and they staked their hopes this year on polling that found President Cyril Ramaphosa with a higher approval rating than that of his party.

But however warmly South Africans may feel toward their president, they see a disconnect between his message of national renewal and the corruption that has sullied his party and crippled municipalities.

"They listen to him; they like him," said Mr Mcebisi Ndletyana, a political scientist at the University of Johannesburg. "But when they lower their eyes to the local leaders that are there, they see mediocrity."

Not since the 1990s, when Nelson Mandela was the face of the party, has the ANC so heavily relied on the personality of its leader in a local election, said Mr William Gumede, chair of the Democracy Works Foundation.

Even with its losses Monday, the ANC remains South Africa's dominant party, having secured 46 per cent of the vote.

But the modest victory means it will now be forced to enter coalitions with smaller parties in cities it once comfortably controlled. It will also have to pursue political compromises in Gauteng province, home to the economic capital, Johannesburg, and Pretoria, the seat of government.

ANC officials tried to cast the results in the best light.

"We're not a loser here," Ms Jessie Duarte, the party's deputy secretary-general, said at a news briefing on the floor of the results centre in Pretoria. "As far as we're concerned, we are the winning party on that board." But Ms Duarte acknowledged that voters had sent a message.

"We do not disrespect the electorate," she said. "They've spoken." She said the party would be "pragmatic" in analysing its losses.

President Cyril Ramaphosa campaigns in Sebokeng, South Africa, on Oct 29, 2021. PHOTO: NYTIMES

Yet it was not simply the losses that unsettled ANC leaders. Many South Africans appeared to be sending a message by not casting ballots at all. Voter turnout was 47 per cent, an 11 percentage point drop from the last election.

While political parties sought to blame the low turnout on a campaign season compressed by Covid-19 regulations and poor weather in some parts of the country, many observers attributed it to a dispiriting political landscape. Inaction at the polls, one analyst suggested, was a form of action.

"We need to start analysing and speaking about not voting as a political activity in itself," said Ms Tasneem Essop, a researcher at the Society, Work and Politics Institute at the University of the Witwatersrand.

Mr Daniel Vinokur, 27, worked as an auditor during the ballot count - but none of the ballots counted was his, he said. "I just don't have a political party I identify with," he said.

Many of those who did vote said they were motivated by national issues, like South Africa's stagnant economy and record unemployment, which have been made worse by the Covid-19 pandemic and the resulting lockdown measures.

"I'm thinking about the youth," said Mr Bongile Gramany, a 62-year-old ANC supporter who voted at a church in Alexandra township. "If they can help the youth to get jobs, to get skills, I'll be happy."

Residents queue for Covid-19 relief grants outside a post office in Lichtenburg, South Africa, on Oct 14, 2021. PHOTO: NYTIMES

Like many of the party's backers, Mr Gramany pointed to the ANC's governing experience and said she believed that "they can change."

The party still plays an outsize role in South Africa's political landscape and in voters' psyches, said Ms Essop, the political analyst.

For some South Africans, the decision not to vote, or to vote for a smaller party, may have partly been meant to punish a party that has fallen short of the ideals of Mandela, its famed leader, she said.

Still, despite a record 95,427 candidates running for 10,468 council seats, the main opposition parties struggled for traction. The Democratic Alliance, which is the leading opposition, failed to make gains, instead, losing support by 5 percentage points since 2016.

Opposition parties that did attract voters drew on issues of identity in communities where people felt let down by the governing party.

African National Congress supporters hold signs displaying grievances at a campaign event for President Cyril Ramaphosa in Johannesburg, South Africa, on Oct 29, 2021. PHOTO: NYTIMES

In KwaZulu-Natal province, once an ANC stronghold, the Inkatha Freedom Party leaned on a history of Zulu nationalism to help it win nearly a quarter of the vote in the largely rural province.

Similarly, the Freedom Front Plus, a historically Afrikaner nationalist party that repositioned itself as a bulwark for all minorities against the ANC, increased its support across the country.

These gains may be a sign that South African voters are shifting to the political right. Instead of the "big ideologies" of left-wing parties, said Ms Susan Booysen, head of research at the Mapungubwe Institute for Strategic Reflection in Johannesburg, some voters may want parties and civic organisations they believe "can get things done."

"I think it is relatively easy for a community to turn to that direction," she said, "when they are exposed to such harsh conditions, and when national government does not lend a helping hand."

Join ST's Telegram channel and get the latest breaking news delivered to you.