Fed up with two decades of corruption, 25% unemployment and effectively living in a one-party state, South African voters have given the ANC its first major defeat since the end of apartheid.
They deserted the party of Nelson Mandela in their millions at yesterday’s local elections, and it appears the ANC has lost control of three major cities – Johannesburg, the capital Pretoria and the Nelson Mandela Bay area which includes Port Elizabeth. The cities are home to more than 8 million people.
Opposition leaders are labelling the results as a transformation of the national political landscape. Mmusi Maimane, first black leader of the main opposition Democratic Alliance, said: “We call this the change election because we felt that it was a referendum on [president] Jacob Zuma as a national figure, but we also had a referendum about the future of South Africa.”
Rising from its roots as the guerrilla force that brought down South Africa’s apartheid system, the ANC has since dominated the country’s politics. Its general secretary recently declared it had “a mandate from God” to rule.
A record number of voters, over 26 million, registered for the election.
The DA, which already controlled Cape Town, was typically strong in the prosperous suburbs around South Africa’s sprawling metropolises. But the party formerly dismissed as the voice of the white middle classes challenged the ANC in its strongholds, which is seen as a significant change.
A more radical party, Freedom Fighters, did not win control of any councils but claimed enough support to serve as kingmaker in some cities. It promises to nationalise mines and redistribute land without compensation.
The results will increase pressure on Zuma, whose critics would like him to step down before his term ends in three years, so a new leader can contest the 2019 general election.
The president has shrugged off years of scandal. Earlier this year the constitutional court ordered him to repay millions of rand of state money spent on his palatial home.
He has been accused of allowing the Gupta family of businessmen undue influence in national affairs, including deciding cabinet appointments.
South Africa’s weak economy and crippling unemployment affects over a quarter of working-age South Africans and disproportionately its young people.
About 80% of its 54 million citizens are black, but most land and companies remain in the hands of white people who make up fewer than 10% of the population.
The DA promises to liberalise the economy, including cutting red tape and making it easier to hire and fire workers.