By Friday, the Independent Electoral Commission had finished counting the ballots in South Africa’s sixth general election since the end of Apartheid. As expected, the African National Congress extended their quarter-century in power with a substantial, yet reduced, majority. What was not expected was both the extent of their reduction, and the subpar performance of at least one opposition party. The new National Assembly will present a fresh set of challenges to President Cyril Ramaphosa and his reform agenda.
Voters had plenty of reasons to be frustrated with the ANC, from the stagnant economy to myriad corruption scandals. The misrule of ousted President Jacob Zuma provided an additional anchor around the party’s neck. Citizens let their feelings be known Wednesday to an unprecedented degree. The ANC won only 230 seats in the 400-seat Assembly (down 19), and a mere 57.5% of the vote. While that may sound impressive, they represent historic election lows since the ANC was allowed to contest them. Ramaphosa’s personal popularity, and his promise to deliver a “new dawn,” likely limited the party’s losses further.
The center-right Democratic Alliance, official opposition to the ANC, came in a distant second, with 84 seats and about 21% of the vote. Yet, these figures also represent losses compared to 2014. It is a particularly disappointing result, given the DA’s big gains in local elections in 2016. The party held on to its traditional stronghold in the Western Cape, but failed to expand much beyond. Their image problem, as a party of white liberals, appears to persist. That might not be enough for Mmusi Maimane, the party’s first black leader, to keep his job.
Not everyone can lose seats, of course, and the Economic Freedom Fighters made out as big winners on the night. They won almost 11% of the vote and 44 seats, gaining as many seats as the ANC lost. Running (far) to the ANC’s left, the EFF seemed to be the biggest outlet for voters’ ANC fatigue. Julius Malema might even be well-positioned to become Leader of the Opposition in five years.
Two parties on the right also made surprising gains. The Zulu nationalist Inkatha Freedom Party, nearly wiped out five years ago, successfully stopped the bleeding and gained four seats. Their fourteen was good enough to claim a distant fourth place. The DA is publicly blaming its losses on Freedom Front Plus, a white, right-wing party spurred by the country’s controversial land reforms. Campaigning in Afrikaans, with the slogan “Fight Back,” FF+ came in fifth, with ten seats. This is more than double their previous support.
The infiltration of the National Assembly by the far-right and far-left, while small, mirrors that of the rest of the democratic world. As social analyst Tessa Dooms told Quartz, “the lived realities and the legacies of Apartheid that we have thought would go away over time have not only remained but are becoming politically significant.” President Ramaphosa’s main challenge, however, is likely to be from within his own party, still beset by factional infighting and bearing the wounds of the battle that brought down Zuma last year. Only by winning them over can his new dawn see daylight.