On Aug. 3, South African municipal elections delivered a startling result. The African National Congress won the majority of votes nationwide, as it has in every election since it brought apartheid to an end in 1994. But this year, for the first time, the ANC looked vulnerable, and secured only 53.9 percent of votes cast throughout the country, its first result below 60 percent.
What’s more, in some cities previously held by the ANC — including Nelson Mandela Bay and Tshwane, which includes the capital Pretoria — the opposition Democratic Alliance won a plurality of municipal council seats.
What has happened to Nelson Mandela’s party?
It’s hard to unseat the party of liberation.
Those who have fought and organized to free their nation from colonial rule or oppressive governments often put down deep organizational roots and establish legitimacy as living symbols of the liberation struggle.
That’s certainly been true in South Africa. In 1994, during the transformed South Africa’s first multiracial democratic elections, Mandela’s ANC alone symbolized freedom and racial justice — and, not surprisingly, won with nearly 63 percent of the vote. During the two decades since, the ANC has enjoyed one-party rule both nationally and — with a few exceptions — locally.
That has changed. This month, the ANC’s most powerful challenge came from the economically right-of-center Democratic Alliance (DA). But the ruling party also bled seats to newer parties such as the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF), a socialist breakaway faction of the ANC Youth League.
South Africa now enters an unprecedented era of political pluralism, as both the ANC and the DA will need to build governing coalitions in major metropolitan areas. This means that smaller parties like the EFF may exercise substantial political power.
Here are four things to know about why some voters are finally moving away from the ANC.
1. It’s not only because of economic difficulties.
South Africa has endured years of weak (if steady) economic growth, high unemployment, sustained inequality and frequent “service delivery protests” — citizen demonstrations meant to express dissatisfaction with the provision of municipal services such as water, sanitation and electricity. The ANC’s current leader, President Jacob Zuma, has also been embroiled in a series of widely publicized corruption scandals.
It would be easy to conclude that poor performance is the reason the ANC lost. After all, you can’t eat liberation credentials. At a certain point, citizens want change.
If that were the sole reason for the vote, we would expect support for the opposition to be concentrated in the most economically marginalized areas of the country. But the poorest areas have remained loyal to the ANC, while relatively prosperous urban areas are splitting their votes. So what else is behind the ANC’s decline?
2. The youth vote isn’t as loyal to the ANC.
South Africa’s electorate has changed since 1994. Today’s young voters did not personally live through apartheid and may feel less tied to the ANC. In fact, young people and university students have led many anti-government demonstrations in recent years, culminating in the #FeesMustFall protests in October 2015 that demanded an end to university tuition increases.
Recent experimental evidence suggests that appeals invoking liberation history do little to activate this “born free” generation. Early results confirm that some young people did vote disproportionately against the ANC in last week’s municipal elections.
Older voters, meanwhile, are systematically more likely to support the ANC (and the isiZulu nationalist Inkatha Freedom Party) rather than the EFF or the DA.
But while the new generation’s looser ties to the ANC may bring increasing political competition over time, young South African voters still turn out at relatively low rates and are hard to mobilize. So generational replacement can’t entirely explain last week’s elections.
3. Improved public services do not make voters more loyal.
Counterintuitively, voters in areas where local ANC rule has delivered the most dramatic improvements in government services don’t reward the ruling party. Instead, recent research by two of this post’s authors based on ward-level data from previous local elections finds an inverse relationship between improved public services and ANC vote share. In fact, areas where services improved the most between 2001 and 2011 saw the biggest decrease in votes for the ANC.
Why? It could be that in areas where the local government invested in providing services, voters had more direct experience with government corruption, seeing projects given to the relatives of local politicians or shoddy workmanship resulting from “leakage” in public funds. Or it could be that getting public goods actually “ratchets up” voter expectations. As individuals move up the socioeconomic ladder, they develop new preferences for policies and parties.
Meanwhile, in areas where voters are frustrated with the ANC’s failure to deliver services, they may protest to send a message to the ANC even if they have no intention of voting for the opposition.
4. Racial and identity politics are changing in South Africa.
Unsurprisingly, racial categories established in South Africa’s colonial era and entrenched during apartheid — black, white, “coloured” (a bloc of people with mixed ethnic origins) and Asian — remain highly salient. Once the ANC was the party of “non-racialism,” open to people of all races and committed to building a “rainbow nation.”
But recently, local ANC candidates have begun appealing directly to black citizens and alienating non-black voters, emphasizing racial disparities in wealth and calling for race-based redistribution. Similarly, Jacob Zuma has leaned heavily on appeals to his isiZulu identity in recent elections. The EFF also focuses on young black voters who feel ANC elites have “sold out” to white economic interests.
The DA, by contrast, which was born out of apartheid-era “white” parties, is now led by a charismatic young black leader, Mmusi Maimane, and is seemingly managing to attract many black voters across the country.
The prominent political economist Adam Przeworski and his colleagues famously argued that democracy requires alternation: “[It] is a system in which incumbents lose elections and leave office when the rules so dictate.” While the ANC is still some distance from losing control of the national Parliament, it has now lost crucial elections in three major metropolitan areas.
No one can take the ANC’s continued political control for granted.
Nina McMurry is a PhD candidate in political science at MIT. Find her on Twitter @nmcmurry.
Philip Martin is a PhD candidate in political science at MIT. Find him on Twitter @PhilipAndrewMar.
Evan Lieberman is the Total Professor of Political Science and Contemporary Africa at MIT. Find him on Twitter @evlieb.
Daniel de Kadt is a PhD candidate in political science at MIT. Find him on Twitter @dandekadt.