clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

South Africa’s ruling party ANC wins reelection

President Cyril Ramaphosa will have to tackle corruption and the economy.

President of the Republic of South Africa Matamela Cyril Ramaphosa. 
President Cyril Ramaphosa and his ANC party win reelection in South Africa’s 2019 elections.
Christian Marquardt-Pool/Getty Images
Jen Kirby is a senior foreign and national security reporter at Vox, where she covers global instability.

President Cyril Ramaphosa and his party, the African National Congress (ANC), have won reelection in South Africa, maintaining its control of government.

The ANC, which has led South Africa’s government since the fall of apartheid in 1994, was expected to prevail in these elections. But corruption and the country’s stagnant economy tested the party’s standing. In the end, it won slightly more than 57 percent of the vote — the first time in 25 years the party has failed to win at least 60 percent in national elections.

Even though the ANC still has no serious challengers — the main opposition party, the Democratic Alliance, came in second place with just 20 percent of the vote its dip in support is notable.

The ANC is unique in politics because of its history as the party of liberation in South Africa. The majority of black voters identify with the party, and it has dominated the political landscape since South Africa became a full democracy in 1994.

Yet the election indicates that a least a share of voters — which likely includes black South African voters — may be losing some trust in the ANC.

The ANC won, but Ramaphosa has tough challenges on corruption and the economy

South Africa’s 2019 election shaped up to be a referendum on Ramaphosa’s promise to clean up the government and his party, and deliver a “new dawn” for the country.

The 66-year-old leader came to power in February 2018 after the scandal-plagued former President Jacob Zuma was forced to resign.

Ramaphosa himself remains fairly popular, and campaigned on the anti-corruption message that he first embraced when he took office in 2018. That may have helped limit ANC’s losses, as South African voters appeared willing to give Ramaphosa a full five-year term to make good on his reform efforts.

But he will face challenges in his new term on the major issues for voters: that anti-corruption push and the economy.

ANC officials tainted by scandals remain in government, and some officials within the ANC are less enthusiastic about his reforms. The damage done to institutions by his predecessor, Zuma, won’t be easily fixed.

South Africa’s economy is also struggling, and Ramaphosa has promised to tackle its current challenges. The unemployment rate is currently 27 percent, and it’s one of the world’s most unequal countries: White South Africans, who make up less than a tenth of the population, still control most of the country’s wealth.

Voters were willing to give Ramaphosa and the ANC another chance to tackle corruption and the economy. But, as experts pointed out, voters — especially younger voters — may have limited patience.

Kealeboga Maphunye, chair of the department of political sciences at the University of South Africa, told me on Wednesday that South Africa’s younger generation, which grew up after apartheid ended in 1994, is more likely to vote “with a sense of caution and concern” not quite shared by the older generation, which lived through the struggle for liberation and are deeply connected to the ANC.

These younger voters, Maphunye said, “are not so optimistic that the future looks bright, that the ANC will deliver the goods.”

The ANC doesn’t face any significant challenge to its power. But these next five years will be a test.

The ANC continues to dominate politics, and the results were mixed for the opposition party and smaller parties that also sought seats in South Africa’s National Assembly.

Ahead of the election, the radical Economic Freedom Fighters, or EFF, tried to capitalize on some of the disillusionment with the ANC. It embraced a far-left platform of state control of the economy and revolutionary rhetoric, and it has managed to push the ANC left on economic issues, including the thorny issue of land reform.

The EFF won a little more than 10 percent of the vote, That’s a big jump from its first national election (6.35 percent), but its 2019 showing fell short of some predictions.

The main opposition party, the Democratic Alliance (DA), won more than 20 percent of the vote, a decrease from 2014. The DA made big gains in local elections in 2016 under the leadership of Mmusi Maimane, the party’s first black leader, who took charge in 2015. But the party still has an image of mostly attracting liberal white voters, and though it’s changing, internal squabbles over that transformation have hampered the party.

But the DA may have also lost votes to a right-wing, conservative, and mainly white party called the Freedom Front Plus (FF+), which received about 2 percent of the vote. The party more than doubled its support since the last election.

Support for the FF+ likely grew over the issue of land reform in South Africa — programs that would redistribute land owned by the white minority, which many see as critical to remedying South Africa’s economic disparities. The issue has become a pet cause for the alt-right worldwide, and FF+’s small surge mirrors the rise of the right-wing in other countries in Europe and elsewhere.

These smaller parties, like the EFF on the left, or FF+ on the right, are influencing South Africa’s political landscape, at least for now. But the ANC remains strongly in power — though the next five years will be a test for it, and its leader, Ramaphosa.

Correction: An earlier version of the post incorrectly stated the name of the Freedom Front Plus (FF+). It has been corrected, and we regret the error.