An African National Congress supporter holds a placard with the face of Cyril Ramaphosa, during a party' rally last Sunday in Johannesburg. (Siphiwe Sibeko/Reuters)

The African National Congress, led by union leader-turned-business magnate Cyril Ramaphosa, has retained a slim majority of seats in South Africa’s parliament, giving Ramaphosa a weak mandate for a full five-year term as president. 

Wednesday’s election, 25 years after the ANC led South Africa out of apartheid and into democracy for all its citizens, was seen as a referendum on the party. The previous president, Jacob Zuma, became embroiled in numerous corruption scandals while the economy lagged and unemployment and inequality deepened, clouding the legacy of the party’s liberation struggle. Zuma resigned in February 2018, and Ramaphosa was elected president by the National Assembly.

In Wednesday’s vote, the ANC continued its steady slide, falling below 60 percent in a general election for the first time in its history. Voter turnout was also the lowest in general election history. But with few upsets in regional elections, the result was mostly status quo. 

“Our people have spoken — and they have done so clearly and emphatically,” Ramaphosa said during a brief acceptance speech. “They have voted for a united South Africa in which all may realize their potential. They have voted for a more equal society, free from poverty, hunger and want. They have voted for a country at peace with itself and the world.”

Analysts have debated whether a weak showing for the ANC will help or hurt Ramaphosa, who is 66, in his efforts to lead the party after nine years of control by Zuma. 

“That the ANC is now winning elections by what elsewhere we’d call a normal margin is a sign of anger at the past nine years, but it is also the sign of a maturing democracy,” said Ralph Mathekga, a South African writer and political commentator. “I’m of the mind that this is the sweet spot for Ramaphosa. The blame still goes to Zuma, and Ramaphosa avoids being the first ANC leader to lose a majority.”

Since Ramaphosa took over from Zuma last year, he has replaced many of his predecessor’s appointments in the cabinet and in state-owned enterprises in an attempt to restore investor confidence in an economy that recently slipped in and out of recession. He also approved a judicial inquiry into Zuma’s alleged improprieties, which Zuma denies.

Ramaphosa will still have to contend with Zuma supporters who retain positions of power within the ANC, along with a wave of discontent and despondency among South Africa’s citizens, especially among its youth. 

More than half of South Africans ages 15 to 24 are unemployed. According to regular polling by Citizen Surveys South Africa, as of March, 79 percent of South Africans think corruption is on the rise; just 22 percent think the country is headed in the right direction. The economy, still Africa’s most industrialized, grew at less than 1 percent last year.

“We are putting our trust and our hopes in President Ramaphosa,” said Khume Ramulifho, a young voter in Soweto, a giant suburb of Johannesburg that is home to more than a million people. “We think he is the one who will make a difference in our lives.”

Of the 47 opposition parties in the South African election, only two are major players: the centrist Democratic Alliance (DA), which has a traditionally white voter base centered in Western Cape province and the city of Cape Town; and the far-left Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF), led by former ANC youth league president Julius Malema, who advocates seizing land from white farmers and redistributing it among the poor black population.

The DA retained control of Western Cape, and the EFF grew its vote share by a few percentage points, but their weak growth nationally illustrated the lack of a serious challenger to the ANC.

Fear over the EFF’s rising prominence, however, has fueled a resurgence in white nationalism in South Africa. The Freedom Front Plus, a coalition of white-led parties advocating white self-rule, was poised to get around 415,000 votes, or just below 3 percent of the total, a marked increase from previous elections.

The ANC held on by a thread in Gauteng, the province that encompasses Johannesburg and the capital, Pretoria, despite fears it would lose its majority there. Overall, analysts said, the ANC and Ramaphosa in particular should be satisfied with their showing.

“Getting less than 60 percent of votes nationally means Ramaphosa will be less tied to the party’s more radical promises, like land expropriation without compensation,” Mathekga said. “Instead, he’ll mostly be concerned with cobbling consensus within the party over his own vision for South Africa’s future.”