On 11 May South Africa’s Independent Election Commission (IEC) declared the African National Congress (ANC) the victor in 8 May 2019 national general elections with a reduced majority of 57.51%. On the surface the election looks to have been a rough one for the ANC as it fell below 60% for the first time in its general election history; emerged with reduced majorities in all eight provinces it governs; and won 1.3 million less votes than in 2014.
The ANC saw its vote share shrink in all nine provinces, losing almost 10% of its support in KwaZulu-Natal (KZN) and narrowly averting losing its majority in the Gauteng provincial legislature ‒ winning only 50.19% of the vote in the country’s economic heartland. This 3.4% drop on 2014 will leave the ANC with only a single seat majority here.
However, many in the ANC will be relieved the party did not do worse. While the results marked a notable dip in support since 2014, they also represent a recovery relative to 2016 local government elections when the ANC lost control of three major metropolitan municipalities and several smaller local and district municipalities. If 2016 had been a national election the party would have received only 53.91% of the national vote and could potentially have lost control of Gauteng, where it took only 45.84%. The 2016 election was viewed as a repudiation of the ANC by a scandal-fatigued electorate fed-up with corruption and service delivery failures under former president Jacob Zuma. The dismal showing is thought to have played a key role in both the election of Cyril Ramaphosa as ANC president in December 2017 and the removal of Zuma from office in February 2018.
The election results were arguably an endorsement of Ramaphosa who has consistently polled as far more popular than the ANC itself, with much talk that without him it would have performed notably worse, potentially even losing its national majority. This is supported by the comparatively high number of split votes where voters backed the ANC nationally but supported another party on the provincial ballot ‒ the ANC won more national than provincial votes in all nine provinces by up to 3%. For example, in Gauteng it got 245 000 more votes on the national ballot than in the province, a variance ascribed largely to Ramaphosa’s national popularity winning out over frustrations with the ruling party. The ANC played this card hard in its campaign, with “Ramaphosa for President” slogans pushing the President’s brand.
This Ramaphosa differential should give the President increased political capital going into the new parliament despite the ANC’s reduced parliamentary presence. This could help him in his stated aim to reduce the size of cabinet and deploy his preferred individuals as ministers. By contrast, Ramaphosa’s key political opponent within the ANC, Secretary-General Ace Magashule, is perceived as on the back-foot with sections of the party angry that the taint of corruption allegations against him hurt the party in the election. However, the true balance of power in the ANC will only be revealed once the new cabinet is unveiled.
A fresh development was the resurgence of the Inkatha Freedom Party (IFP) in KZN where its 16.34% reinstalled it as the official opposition. Its gains came at the expense of the ANC, which lost 9.7% of its support here, and are attributed largely to the return to the IFP of some Zulu nationalists who supported Zuma in 2009 and 2014 ‒ the former president was exceptionally popular in his home province.
A similar ethnic shift boosted the fortunes of the Freedom Front Plus (FF+) which surged from 0.90% in 2014 to 2.38%. This has been put down to an exodus of rightwing voters from the official opposition, the Democratic Alliance (DA); many rural white voters participating in elections for the first time; and the FF+’s exploitation of fears about land ownership and rights.
These shifts towards the IFP and the FF+ signal a normalisation of voting patterns in South Africa. Far-right conservatives and Afrikaner nationalists were always an uneasy fit in the centrist DA and the IFP has always been the natural political home for Zulu nationalist voters. In this, the 2019 election results arguably represent a more accurate and natural reflection of the South African electorate.
The same could be said of the DA’s apparent flatlining of support as it lost roughly 1.5% of its national support and also saw a decline on all provincial ballots. On top of losing conservative voters to the FF+, the DA lost voters in the Western Cape to Good, a DA splinter party led by former Cape Town mayor Patricia de Lille, and felt the impact of poor voter turnout. This is the first election in which the DA has seen a drop in support, an outcome expected to exacerbate factional tensions within the party. The DA’s messaging also played a role as it campaigned heavily on stopping the ANC and the leftist Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) rather than aggressively pursuing its own policy agenda. Previously successful, these reactive messaging tactics seem to have reached their ceiling.
The EFF, by contrast, is celebrating what it is calling a successful election, increasing its share of the national vote from 6.35% in 2014 to 10.79% ‒ about 712 000 new voters. The party aggressively pursued voters in townships and rural areas with land reform a key platform. The EFF is also now the official opposition in the Limpopo, North West, Mpumalanga, and Free State provinces. However, in real terms, its growth was neither that substantial or unexpected (its 8.19% of all ballots in 2016 suggests small and steady gains) and, given its possibly disproportionate presence on the political landscape, its growth could even be deemed quite modest.
The incoming parliament will be substantially changed with 14 different political parties and a reduced ANC majority of 230 seats. The EFF’s increased 44 seat presence (from 25), and the FF+’s growth from four to ten seats, could also see more conflict between the two ideological and political foes.
This right-left standoff could drown out the centrist discourse of the ANC and DA (among others) which continues to dominate parliament in numerical terms. Accordingly, the ANC and the incoming parliament will need to be proactive on policy and legislation to avoid the national conversation being dominated by the loudest voices.