In Depth

What does the future hold for the ANC in South Africa?

Cyril Ramaphosa is re-elected president but rise of populism poses a real threat

Cyril Ramaphosa has been re-elected as president of South Africa after a bruising election that brought large gains for opposition parties.

With more than 90% of results declared, Ramaphosa’s African National Congress (ANC) has won 57% of the votes, with the opposition Democratic Alliance (DA) on 21%. This is the sixth re-election of the ANC, which has been in power since the end of apartheid in 1994.

But despite the victory, the ANC is set to record its worst performance at the ballot box since the end of white rule - something the BBC attributes to anger over a weak economy and rampant corruption.

With the ANC’s popularity waning since the ousting of Jacob Zuma in 2017, The Daily Telegraph reports that Ramaphosa’s campaign was less a matter of acheving a landslide than simply “avoiding electoral disaster”.

The Times says that the ANC’s role as South Africa’s political centre is “just about holding”, but adds that the “only parties to attract new voters this week have been on the far left and hard right”, revealing the scale of the country’s appetite for populism.

The BBC suggests that Ramaphosa needs to tread carefully. “The ANC has been accused of putting its own survival ahead of the interests of the country,” the broadcaster says. “How Ramaphosa chooses his cabinet will be the first indication of whether that has changed.”

The results

With almost all the votes counted, the ANC holds a very comfortable lead with nearly 57% of the electorate opting for another term for Ramaphosa.

But it is the party’s worst national showing since Nelson Mandela led the ANC to victory in the first multi-racial polls after apartheid ended in 1994.

“We’re going to be the government, whether there is decline or increase,” said ANC chairman Gwede Mantashe late on Thursday.

The second largest party is the Democratic Alliance (DA), which received 22% of the vote - the same as in the previous elections in 2014. Despite attempts to distance itself from the image, The Guardian reports that the party is still widely seen as representing the interests of South Africa’s white minority, and has struggled to garner support in the intensifying climate of populism in the country.

The big story of the election was the performance of the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF), a relatively new hard-left populist party that advocates for elements of communism and pan-Africanism. Led by former ANC youth leader Julius Malema, the EFF was in third place with 10%, up from 6% in 2014. This is a significant vote for a party that the BBC reports wants to seize white-owned land without compensation and completely nationalise the country’s mining industry.

Why has the ANC performed poorly?

Ramaphosa, a former labour activist who took power from disgraced former president Jacob Zuma last year, had “called on voters to back his efforts to root out graft and incompetence within the ruling party” and “push through measures to boost South Africa’s flagging economy”, The Guardian says.

But many in South Africa - particularly the younger generations - have been left alienated and angered by collapsing public services, soaring unemployment, power cuts and high levels of violent crime.

According to The Conversation, South Africa’s core problem at present is a “weak economy which is unable to grow at a rate which preserves people’s living standards” - a problem it ascribes to, among other things, the country’s “minority-ruled past”.

As a result, poverty has become a major issue in the country, with approximately half of the adult population living below the poverty line and 27% of working-age adults currently out of work. A recent study also showed that income inequality in South Africa is the highest of any nation in the world.

The ANC did little to assuage the concerns of disaffected voters, running on a vague platform that News24 says included “intervention in procurement processes at state-owned enterprises”, as well as “strengthening governance” and “rooting out corruption”. As a result, millions of voters fled the centre in favour of political extremes.

William Gumede, chairman of the political foundation Democracy Works, told the Times that the success of parties on the right and left had demonstrated that “the more the ANC fails to deliver what the majority black population is crying out for, the more black populism will rise and the ‘white right’ emerges as a response”.

Sithembile Mbete, a political analyst, told Al Jazeera that South Africa is “seeing the same kind of backlash against centrist politics that you’ve seen in the rest of the world”.

What does that mean for Ramaposha and the ANC?

The future looks uncertain for the ANC, with many believing that without a significant turnaround in South Africa’s fortunes, a defeat at the next election in 2024 is inevitable.

The Times says that the ANC, once a fearsome liberation movement, has now been “rendered dysfunctional by infighting and [is] riddled with corruption” and has “failed to add to a core of mostly older and rural loyal voters”.

“The trajectory of ANC support is now firmly in decline,” the paper adds. “Cyril Ramaphosa is likely to be the last leader of the African National Congress to savour a majority.”

But despite the dire outlook, others are more positive. The BBC’s Andrew Harding says the result is “still quite an achievement for a party that has presided over a decade of economic stagnation and entrenched corruption”.

Furthermore, experts believe that the popular Ramaphosa appears to have “saved” the party from an even worse result. The party’s head of elections, Fikile Mbalula, told reporters on Thursday night that had Zuma remained in charge, the ANC might have polled as low as 40%.

The Daily Telegraph suggests that Ramaphosa has secured a sufficient - if rather flimsy - hold over the party that has deprived enemies of his within the ANC of ammunition in their “quest to force him to adopt more radical policies, particularly on land redistribution”.

After Wednesday, Ramaphosa is safe. But for how long remains unclear.

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