South Africa’s ruling ANC party loses control of Nelson Mandela Bay

South Africa’s ruling ANC party has lost control of the symbolic Nelson Mandela Bay area as millions of voters abandon it across the country in local elections that could rewrite the country’s political landscape.

Twenty-two years since the party came to power, South Africans used the local government elections to warn the ANC that its historic achievement of overturning the apartheid system no longer guaranteed it the right to govern.

Frustrated by a stagnant economy, crippling unemployment and corruption scandals swirling around the president, Jacob Zuma, voters have turned away from the party of Nelson Mandela in huge numbers.

They cast their ballots for the Democratic Alliance (DA), a party once considered a champion of the white middle classes that now has its first black leader, Mmusi Maimane.

South Africans also voted in smaller but significant numbers for the Economic Freedom Fighters, a radical far-left party led by the former ANC firebrand Julius Malema that is likely to serve as kingmaker in areas where the ANC or DA are forced to form coalitions.

Although voters were only choosing local councils, the elections were widely seen as a referendum on more than two decades of ANC rule.

Eyewitness News quoted Malema telling party activists: “We are happy that the EFF is the first organisation to humble the ANC – the most arrogant organisation.”

The first victory the DA claimed was the Nelson Mandela Bay area, named after the revered former president and once home to other heroes of the anti-apartheid movement.

The DA will have to rule in coalition, but the loss was still difficult for the ANC to digest. Long after it was clear that support for the party had collapsed there, the deputy president, Cyril Ramaphosa, said it was too early to analyse the election results. It would be like reading “somebody’s tombstone before they die,” he said.

“It was a hotly contested area, where we as the ANC had a number of challenges and problems. We accept that the people have spoken.”

In Johannesburg and the urban sprawl around Pretoria, results were still being counted nearly two days after polling stations closed, with support for the ANC and the DA too close to call.

Even if the ANC ultimately only loses control of one city, it will have been chastened by the election result. It looks set to hold on to a slim overall majority nationwide, but this is the first time since Mandela took power that it has secured less than 60% of the vote.

“We need to have a serious introspection,” the ANC chief whip, Jackson Mthembu, told reporters at the main counting centre in Pretoria.

The challenge, particularly for the DA, as it takes power in new areas as part of a coalition, will be coming good on election promises to rule for all, including the poorest black communities frustrated by inequality.

About 80% of South Africa’s 54 million citizens are black, but most land and companies remain in the hands of white people, who make up less than 10% of the population.

“We’ve given the DA a chance to show what they can do. I hope they don’t let us down,” said one township voter, who spoke to Reuters, but asked to be named only as Tando because of the stigma still attached to his choice. “Where I come from, there is a lot of pressure to vote for the ANC.”

The DA has built up a reputation for competent management in Cape Town, its only power base until now, but has been dogged by lingering accusations of racism.

As recently as last year, a shadow cabinet member was demoted after sharing a Facebook post praising the apartheid president PW Botha.

The DA has worked hard to distance itself from that legacy. In a major speech at the start of the year, Maimane spelled out that the party did not want votes from anyone not committed to a diverse South Africa.

“If you’re a racist and you are thinking of voting for the DA, please don’t. We are not the party for you,” he told an audience at the apartheid museum, in a landmark speech on identity and race.

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