The fall and fall of the ANC as voters punish bad governance

Saturday November 13 2021

Supporters of the South Africa’s ruling African National Congress party at an election campaign rally. Picture: AFP


South Africa’s ruling party African National Congress (ANC), would have never imagined it’s performance at the polls could get any worse than the 2016 local government elections.

The ANC, which has ruled since 1994, suffered what was its worst election defeat ever in 2016, with its popular vote dropping by 8.04 percent.

Its closest rivals – the Democratic Alliance (DA) gained 2.96 percent – while the Economic Freedom Front (EFF) participated in the municipal vote for the first time then.

Five years later, it’s worse for the party of Independence, as the recently held 2021 local government elections returned another swing in the negative of 8.3 percent.

Of course, this time around the DA also dropped 5.28 percent, while Julius Malema’s EFF emerged as the biggest winners from the vote, after gaining a 2.13 percentage.

Worrisome for the ruling party is that the downward spiral plunged it under the 50 percent mark for the first time in its history, leaving it with just a 45.59 percent share of the total vote.


In the first local government elections in 2000, the ANC had outright control of all eight metros, but now only two remain in its grasp.

The party hierarchy will now have a major headache, with just three years before South Africans go to the polls again but this time to elect their next president and legislative representatives. Will three years be enough to “right the wrongs?”

“It’s always been coming, the ANC has been gradually losing ground since Jacob Zuma’s presidential tenure. The party bigwigs barely have time to convince voters that they are the right party to continue leading the country. The issues they need to deal with are too deep,” political analyst Mandla Mzimela told The EastAfrican.

Free fall

With the ANC continuing to fall off voter’s preference list, the 2024 general election could represent an unprecedented moment marking the end of the party’s rule. From its dominance in South Africa’s first general election in 1994, the ANC is now teetering on the brink of being an opposition party. A fate that has befallen many Independence parties on the continent.

In the run-up to the November 1 local government polls, President Cyril Ramaphosa’s main message to the electorate was an admission of failure since 1994 and a desperate plea for another chance. Often booed by his own supporters amid internal party cracks that appear difficult to fix, it is certainly going to be a long road to 2024.

Following the just-witnessed watershed moment for ANC, South Africa has entered a new political era.

Mr Mzimela added that after 27 years in power, the ruling party has no one to blame but itself for South Africa's woes. Unemployment has hit a record 34.4 percent.

“Right now businesses are suffering because of load shedding because of mismanagement and corruption that happened under the ANC’s watch. Poor service delivery, water cuts and sewage leaks are the order of the day in communities. Surely, voters will punish the ANC in the next election,” he said.

In recent weeks, South Africans have experienced their longest and worst power cuts. In some instances, they have had to go as long as 12 hours without electricity. All these factors could spell doom for ANC going into 2024.

President Ramaphosa, however, put on a brave face when he attended the official results declaration ceremony in Pretoria recently, saying “if we are to make this a new and better era, we, as leaders, must put aside our differences and work together in a spirit of partnership and common purpose.”

ANC elections chief Fikile Mbalula, who also serves as minister of Transport, said “the worst could have happened.”

“We fought very hard to get to this point. We are not politically obliterated, we are not annihilated, that could have happened,” Mr Mbalula said.

Former ANC youth league leader, Malema, who now leads the EFF, warned it could get worse for his former party come 2024.

“We are extremely excited that ANC support has dwindled below 50 percent. It’s going to be worse in 2024 for the ANC,” Mr Malema said.

Opposition DA leader John Steenhuisen is convinced the decline in support for the ANC signals the beginning of the end of the party.

“South Africans signaled the beginning of the end of the ANC’s political dominance and ushered in a new and hopeful era," said Steenhuisen.

As expected, South Africa’s major cities such as Johannesburg and Pretoria, which have had coalition governments since the last local polls five years ago, continue under the same arrangement. In fact, 66 municipalities were left hanging with their fate resting with coalitions.

“To show that the ANC has lost control, the party lost more regions including former president Zuma's stronghold province of KwaZulu-Natal province,” added Mzimela.

He believes what worsens the ANC’s position is the infighting within the party, which he says, is unlikely to change in the next three years. The opposition, he further says, may actually capitalise on the ruling party’s internal squabbles.

ANC secretary general Ace Magashule, a known ally of Mr Zuma, remains suspended and One SA Movement chief activist Mmusi Maimane has previously said the nation is “held to ransom” by the infighting and factions within the ruling party.

Misplaced conclusion?

However, another political analyst Nhlanhla Dinabantu warned opposition parties that while it was tempting to treat the outcome of this election as if it reflects on what will happen in the national election, it was probably misplaced. Mr Dinabantu gave an example of the 2016 local elections in which the ANC clocked 53.9 percent, but in the 2019 national election, it won 57.5 percent.

“I get the sense that there is a significant difference between local and national elections for the ANC vote. Of course, a lot has happened since 2016, but when going to a national election voters are obviously thinking of the opposition leaders that could potentially take over. Is there any alternative in the opposition? I doubt it,” Mr Dinabantu said.

He concluded that the key to how the ANC does in 2024 will be its own behaviour, particularly around corruption and service delivery in the next three years. Without a doubt, over the next 36 months, South Africa’s politics will be dominated by the simple but complex question of whether the ANC will be pushed below 50 percent in the 2024 local elections.