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In 1994, South Africa’s first post-apartheid election famously catapulted Nelson Mandela’s African National Congress (ANC) to power. Two decades of episodic economic development and broad political stability followed, underwritten by consistent ANC majorities in national ballots.

The steady decline of the ANC’s vote share since its high point of 70% in 2004 created expectations that the party would secure a little below 50% this year. This would have allowed it to strike a transactional coalition deal with smaller parties and to remain broadly hegemonic. In the event, the national and provincial elections on May 29th saw the former liberation movement humbled or even humiliated. ANC representation in the national assembly has been cut to 40%. The party now has only minority representation in four provincial legislatures, including all three key economic centers—Gauteng, KwaZulu-Natal (KZN), and the Western Cape, the latter having already been under the control of the opposition Democratic Alliance (DA) for more than a decade.

The national and provincial elections on May 29th saw South Africa’s former liberation movement humbled or even humiliated.

This outcome should not really have come as a surprise. South Africa has faced prolonged economic stagnation since the global economic crisis in 2008, which has exacerbated deep-seated structural unemployment and inequality. Hospitals, roads and railways, and water and sanitation services have been made more accessible by ambitious ANC governments, but their quality has been deteriorating, sometimes dramatically. Household services and municipal infrastructure have been especially hard hit, worsened by rapid urbanization, skill shortages, and corruption.

Violence and crime have accelerated in recent years, after two decades of promising post-apartheid decline. Outbreaks of xenophobic violence, and a disturbing breakdown of public order in KwaZulu-Natal in July 2021, have deepened perceptions of a law-and-order crisis. Meanwhile, a major commission of inquiry into corruption, focused on former President Jacob Zuma’s period in office from 2009 to 2018, placed responsibility for “state capture” on the shoulders of senior ANC leaders.

The decline of key state-owned enterprises or parastatals, notably the electricity utility Eskom and the logistics monolith Transnet, partly explains the country’s low growth and fiscal crisis. Rotational electricity blackouts, freight transport delays, and failures of air, postal, and other state-owned entities throttled growth, undermined tax revenues, and created a need for escalating treasury bailouts that a post-Covid fiscus cannot afford. Electricity “load shedding” became a symbol of the dysfunction of the governing party, its corruption, and its failure to manage and maintain public assets.

Little wonder, then, that long before this year’s national and provincial elections, citizens were telling pollsters of their extreme discontent with the government. The precipitous decline in the ANC vote, however, and the loss of its electoral majority, was far from simply the result of a build-up of voter dissatisfaction.

Adapted from Schulz-Herzenberg and Mattes 2023 and IEC 2024.

30 Years of Hegemony

The outcome has proved disorienting to politicians, journalists, and citizens alike because electoral dominance brought stability. The ANC’s self-conception as a non-racial national liberation movement helped it defuse racial tensions and subdue potentially anti-democratic leaders. The political violence that marked the 1980s was curtailed, and the invulnerability that the party enjoyed allowed it to enforce some unpopular, but probably necessary, fiscal policies. However, even if single-party dominance was indeed essential during democracy’s first two decades, the blurring of state and party, patronage politics, growing corruption, and the abuse of incumbency ultimately undermined key political and economic institutions.

Electoral dominance brought stability. However, even if single-party dominance was indeed essential during democracy’s first two decades, the blurring of state and party, patronage politics, growing corruption, and the abuse of incumbency ultimately undermined key political and economic institutions.

Over the decades, the dominant party system birthed two substantial and well-organized opposition parties, the Democratic Alliance (DA) and the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF). The DA built support primarily from white and “colored” electors, especially in the Cape, Gauteng, and other urban areas. Its roughly equal shares of white, colored, and black voters bore testimony to its failure to make a real breakthrough with the numerically preponderant black African electorate and help explain its 20% vote ceiling.

The EFF, in contrast, was a breakaway from the ANC. Initially a youth formation, with support concentrated in northern provinces, EFF has been led by the charismatic but controversial Julius Malema. The party proclaims revolutionary ideas, engages in militaristic posturing, and champions dramatic policy proposals, for example for land seizures and nationalization without compensation. It has nonetheless rightly put youth unemployment on the political agenda and maintained a principled policy on intra-African migration. Despite effective campaigning, the EFF has found it hard to grow much beyond 10% support.

Before the rise of uMkhonto weSizwe (MKP), opposition parties failed to capitalize on the opportunities the foundering ANC presented. At election time, the ANC could fall back on a legacy of achievements from its first two decades of government, including addressing apartheid legacy backlogs in housing and basic services. In terms of government effectiveness, regulatory quality, and the rule of law, the World Bank continued to place it, despite a gradual downward slide, in the middle of the pack of middle-income countries. Opposition parties, moreover, faced image and strategy challenges, with the DA struggling to shake off perceptions that it is a “white” party and the EFF battling to appeal to older and more conservative voters, and to women.

The ANC enjoyed incumbency advantages, including occupation of government positions, control of government budgets, the ability to claim credit for policy successes, plus influence over the public broadcaster. As Kenneth Greene has observed, dominant parties also enjoy “hyper-incumbency advantages” such as the ability to divert resources from state-owned enterprises to their allies and donors, and through them back to the party.

Systemic Fractures

The ANC’s steady decline was dramatically accelerated by the rise of MKP. Formed in late 2023 at the instigation of corruption-accused 82-year-old former president Jacob Zuma, and named after the ANC’s apartheid-era exiled military wing, it unexpectedly secured 15% nationally and 45% in its provincial heartland of KZN. This performance was buoyed both by personal sympathy for Zuma’s alleged persecution, and by ethnic and regional factors: many Zulu speakers did not support Zuma, but very few non-Zulu speakers voted for the new party.

When exploring the apparent rise of “the opposition” this year, it is noteworthy that both the EFF and the MKP were once themselves ANC factions, and that they retain strong relationships and antagonisms with contesting factions that remain in the mother party’s body.

Equally importantly—and with the notable exception of MKP—there has been little switching of support from the ANC to opposition parties. Instead, a prior trend of disaffected ANC voters exiting the electoral process altogether has continued. In 2024, the ANC saw a drop in the actual number of votes it received—but so too did the DA and the EFF. In South Africa, voters must register well in advance of the voting period. The proportion of the voting age population that registered and then turned out to vote for the ANC was 54% in 1999, 28% in 2019, and 16% in 2024.

Adapted from Schulz-Herzenberg and Mattes 2023 and IEC 2024.

The key conundrum for opposition parties has been why potential voters are exiting in such large numbers rather than switching their allegiance. This trend accelerated in 2024, with younger voters most notably absent from the polls, which has concerning implications for the legitimacy of the democratic process in the years ahead.

As the largest party, the ANC has several options; the trouble is that none of them are very palatable, all of them are divisive, and few of them look sustainable.

Right now, however, the focus of politics has been a more immediate priority: the formation of a coalition government. As the largest party, the ANC has several options; the trouble is that none of them are very palatable, all of them are divisive, and few of them look sustainable. The ANC is linked ideologically, and by personal networks, to both the MKP and the EFF, but cross-party relationships have been stormy. Both of these externalized ANC factions have demanded the removal of President Cyril Ramaphosa, the centrist ANC leader, as a precondition for a coalition deal—although their positions have softened in recent days. Given a history of corruption, and their advocacy of incoherent and populist policies, severe economic turbulence is likely to follow the participation of either party in government.

As for the DA, a strong lobby of ANC elders and centrists believes a coalition deal with the most investor-friendly—and largest—opposition party could provide breathing space for party renewal. The DA, however, evokes hostility among most ANC activists, and any deal with it is likely to result in significant desertions to the MKP and EFF.

Under normal circumstances, the ANC might be expected, as is its wont, to defer such a difficult decision. Since the election was declared free and fair by the electoral commission on June 2nd, however, a clock has been set ticking. In South Africa’s parliamentary system, the constitution is crystal clear that members of parliament must be sworn in, and a president must be elected by them, within 14 days of the certification of results. This probably means there will be a presidential election on the afternoon of Friday, June 14th.

A sustainable coalition requires agreement on policy positions, allocation of cabinet jobs, a settlement of national-provincial tensions, and mechanisms to manage conflict and keep the coalition deal on track. Activists and voters will certainly feel betrayed—pretty much whatever party elites decide to do—and they will need to be brought around to see the wisdom of unpalatable compromises. This all requires elite negotiation and communication with party rank and file, and this cannot be rushed if coalitions are to hold.

The election of the president may therefore take place in the national assembly without any coalition having yet been formed. The presidential voting system is designed to produce a winner even if there is no initial majority for a candidate.

The End of Stability?

The president will most likely be Cyril Ramaphosa once again. His minority government will be vulnerable to votes of “no confidence” and appropriations votes cannot be deferred forever. Nonetheless, there will be a negotiating window in which party donors and the many ANC politicians who are involved in business may lobby in favor of a deal with the DA, and perhaps also with the Inkatha Freedom Party, a relatively conservative ally. This coalition would most probably be described as a “government of national unity,” echoing the multiparty government that Nelson Mandela created in 1994 to build national unity and finalize the post-apartheid constitution.

It is also possible, however, that the ANC’s governing national executive committee will balk at the idea of a deal with the “white party.” Some ANC leaders, including deputy president Paul Mashatile, may view the coalition conundrum as an opportunity to oust Ramaphosa under the pretext that an EFF or MKP coalition better suits the interests of the ANC.

Coalition government will not be a singular event. Any decisive outcome is unlikely, and any coalition that is formed will encounter challenges of sustainability. Resource-seeking coalitions are likely to become a permanent feature of South African politics.

Either way, coalition government will not be a singular event. Any decisive outcome is unlikely, and any coalition that is formed will encounter challenges of sustainability, especially as the next set of elections, at the local government level, are due in 2026. In the medium to long term, resource-seeking coalitions that include the EFF, MKP, and ANC, or future descendants or hybrids of these parties, are likely to become a permanent feature of South African politics. In the short term, however, it is more probable that a centrist government of national unity will be agreed upon within weeks of the election of the president.

Anthony Butler is Professor of Political Studies at the University of Cape Town. His research focuses on public policy analysis and contemporary South African politics. He is the author of a number of books, including The Idea of the ANC (Ohio University Press, 2012), Contemporary South Africa (Palgrave Macmillan, 2017) and Cyril Ramaphosa (James Currey, 2019). Butler is a regular columnist for Johannesburg’s Business Day newspaper, and his essays and columns on contemporary politics are available on his blog Practical Reason.

Image made by John Chrobak using “Julius Malema, EFF CIC (2019),” by eNCA licensed under CC Attribution 3.0 Unported; “Jacob Zuma, 2009 World Economic Forum on Africa-9,” by licensed under CC Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic; “John Steenhuisen,” by Democratic Alliance licensed under CC Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International; “Meeting of 2018 BRICS leaders with delegation heads from invited states (5),” by Пресс-служба Президента Российской Федерации licensed under CC Attribution 4.0 International; “ANC,” by Rob Koster licensed under CC Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International; “DA 2019 election poster eskom,” by Discott licensed under CC Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International; “Voting day 1,” by HelenOnline licensed under CC Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported.