Online Exclusive

South Africa Has Entered a New Era

The African National Congress can no longer call all the shots, and opposition parties will have more sway. Will this lead to a more inclusive democracy or gridlock and division?

By Ongama Mtimka

June 2024

On May 29, for the first time in thirty years, the African National Congress (ANC) lost its outright majority in Parliament in South Africa’s general elections. The 2024 elections were the first in which the results were not a foregone conclusion, with the ANC coming out on top. Pre-election polls had predicted the loss — they projected the ANC’s vote share between 38 and 45 percent — and that is exactly what happened. The ANC obtained a meager 40.2 percent of the vote, failing to secure a majority. The center-right Democratic Alliance won nearly 22 percent, former president Jacob Zuma’s uMkhonto weSizwe (MK) Party won 14.6 percent, and the radical leftist Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) earned 9.5 percent.

These elections have ushered in a new era of South African opposition politics, and the end of ANC domination. The ANC must now form a government with at least one of its rivals. This moment therefore also represents a potential turning point for South Africa’s democracy: an opportunity to usher in an inclusive and well-functioning political economy or fall down a path of further factionalization, division, and gridlock.

The ANC’s decline has been a long time coming: Splinter parties have been eating away at its margins for years. The decline and fracture truly became apparent in the 2009 election of populist president Jacob Zuma. The ANC lost its two-thirds majority in that election, dropping from 69.7 to 65.9 percent as the breakaway Congress of the People (COPE) cut into its support. The most consequential shift for the ANC, however, came in 2016 local-government elections when it lost the major metropolises — namely, Johannesburg, the City of Tshwane, and Nelson Mandela Bay as it was abandoned by urban voters and faced yet another splinter party, the EFF. Losing the big cities crystallized the ANC’s growing status as a rural party, a cause for concern in a rapidly urbanizing country like South Africa.

President Cyril Ramaphosa replaced Jacob Zuma as head of the governing party in December 2017. Two months later Zuma was “recalled” as the state president, only to be replaced by Ramaphosa following pressure after allegations of corruption. The Ramaphosa administration brought with it promises of a new dawn. Among those were commitments to fix ailing state-owned enterprises, growing the economy, resolving the electricity supply crisis, and prosecuting senior politicians accused of corruption. These commitments raised significant hope that they could turn around the economy. But “Ramaphoria” proved to be short-lived.  Challenges, such as the covid-19 pandemic and poor leadership prevented the ANC from regaining its momentum. Ramaphosa was accused of being beholden to powerful interests in the ANC and failing to clean up the government. The party came out of the 2019 general elections with its vote share even further diminished to 57.7 percent.

The strongest sign that the ANC had reached a point of no return in its electoral decline was the party’s performance in local elections in 2021. For the first time in the country’s post-apartheid, democratic history, the ANC obtained only a 45 percent national average. Opinion polls since August 2022 have consistently predicted that the governing party’s electoral fortunes would fall further, which culminated in the party’s dismal performance in last month’s polls.

No More Dominant-Party Politics

With South Africa transformed from a dominant-party system into a multiparty democracy, the ANC must now form a coalition. Since the results were declared on June 3, the major parties have been holding marathon meetings, scrambling to cobble together “a government of national unity” before the two-week deadline by which Parliament must convene. The ANC has reached out to its rival parties as well as smaller parties, but the final configuration is yet to be determined.

The dominant-party system was defined by a weak opposition, an overbearing governing party, and a too-close relationship between the Parliament and the executive. The ANC was able to ram through legislation and other government programs despite protests from the opposition. Opposition parties could only counter majoritarianism in Parliament through the courts, sometimes relying on the Constitutional Court. The ANC also used its parliamentary majority to shield the executive from accountability on multiple occasions. This arose from the fact that cabinet members were generally drawn from the ranks of senior MPs from the majority party in Parliament. Consequently, the relationship between Parliament and the executive was warm, and there were few checks and balances. In this new age, the ANC will no longer have these protections.

The party is actively racing to secure its coalition. The first major hurdle in the talks however will be to overcome debilitating ideological stand-offs that preclude pragmatism and compromise. Will South Africa emerge from these talks a more pluralistic, inclusive democracy, or will it become paralyzed by gridlock? Whatever coalition emerges, it’s clear South Africa has entered a new chapter in its political history.

Ongama Mtimka is a lecturer and political analyst based at Nelson Mandela University as well as the executive chair of the South African Political Risk Institute. He writes in his personal capacity.


Copyright © 2024 National Endowment for Democracy

Image credit: PHILL MAGAKOE/AFP via Getty Images




Resisting State Capture in South Africa

Rod Alence and Anne Pitcher

Despite the lack of electoral turnover in ANC-ruled South Africa, the country’s successful resistance to efforts at “state capture” under former president Jacob Zuma testifies to the vitality of its democracy.

APRIL 2022

South Africa’s Resilient Democracy

Evan Lieberman and Rorisang Lekalake

The country’s struggles with crime and corruption led many to tag it as a near-failed state. Yet the Rainbow Nation is in fact an unexpected success story, with a political landscape that is growing more vibrant and diverse.

JULY 2011

Poverty, Inequality, and Democracy: South African Disparities

Charles Simkins

Despite improvements in South Africa’s socioeconomic landscape and the expansion of the black middle class since the end of apartheid, the country’s levels of poverty and inequality remain high and heavily correlated with race.