With another big majority victory under his belt, President Jacob Zuma was in fine humour as he strolled through South Africa’s election-results centre, beaming blithely and shaking hands with crowds of people.
Mr. Zuma’s ruling party, the African National Congress (ANC), won 63 per cent of the vote in Wednesday’s election, down only slightly from the 66 per cent that it captured in the last election five years ago.
For the former liberation movement, this was its fifth consecutive election victory since the demise of apartheid in 1994. But while the ANC might be celebrating, its strategists must have noticed the warning signs of early erosion in its support.
Millions of South Africans simply stayed away from the polls, unable to muster any enthusiasm for Mr. Zuma’s corruption-prone and scandal-plagued party. Because so many voters did not register or did not vote, the ANC received support from only about 37 per cent of the 31 million eligible voters.
The biggest opposition party, the Democratic Alliance (DA), boosted its vote from 17 per cent to 22 per cent. And a new radical left-wing party, the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF), gained 6 per cent to finish in third place in its first election.
The DA did particularly well in two major cities, Cape Town and Johannesburg, suggesting that many urban voters are shifting away from the ANC, which could be a harbinger of further losses for the ruling party in the future.
In the sprawling city of Soweto, a black township at the forefront of the anti-apartheid battles, the distaste for Mr. Zuma was clear in the comments of many voters on Wednesday. Some said they voted for the ANC only as a sign of respect for Nelson Mandela, the liberation hero and first democratic president of South Africa who died in December at the age of 95.
“I just vote for them because of Tata Madiba [Mr. Mandela], out of respect, even though they are corrupt,” said Jerry Shabalala, a 38-year-old security guard who still lives in a shack in Soweto but has voted religiously for the ANC in every election since 1994.
“The ANC – there is corruption, those people. The housing is not improved. As security officers, we are guarding their houses, their families, and they don’t care about us. But I still vote for them because I don’t see any other party.”
In Wednesday’s election, the ANC won seven of the country’s nine provinces and was leading in incomplete results in an eighth province, Gauteng, the economic powerhouse of the country and the home of two important cities, Johannesburg and Pretoria.
But its lead in Gauteng was relatively small, with a majority of just 53 per cent in partial results, down from 64 per cent in the last election. If it fails to win a majority in the province, the opposition parties could form a coalition to defeat it. The Gauteng results were being watched very closely as a sign of possible ANC decline in the country’s heartland.
The opposition Democratic Alliance won a re-election victory in Western Cape province, the only province that the ANC fails to govern. The DA gained 59 per cent of the vote in Western Cape, up from 51 per cent in the last election.
While the ANC clearly retains the loyalty of most South Africans, and it still wins gratitude from voters for leading the battle against apartheid before 1994, the party also enjoys a strong advantage from its control of state resources.
A report last month by South African researcher David Bruce, published by a community group called Community Agency for Social Inquiry, documented many examples of the ANC using improper campaign tactics such as intimidation, coercion, vote-buying, distribution of food parcels to voters and threats that the voters could lose their monthly welfare grants if they fail to vote for the ANC.