The poor showing of his African National Congress party in local elections represents a political earthquake in South Africa.
In 2004, Jacob G. Zuma, then deputy president, predicted that the A.N.C. “would rule South Africa until Jesus comes back.” Now, 12 years later, under Mr. Zuma’s presidency, the A.N.C. slumped to 54.4 percent of the vote, down from 62.9 percent five years ago. The party has lost control of 27 municipalities, including four of the country’s eight major cities, among them Johannesburg, the economic center; the municipality of Pretoria (officially known as Tshwane), the executive and administrative capital; and Nelson Mandela Bay.
The last is a particularly bitter blow for the governing party: Port Elizabeth was renamed for Mandela because of its proud A.N.C. history. Mr. Zuma even lost his hometown, Nkandla, to the Zulu nationalist Inkatha Freedom Party. Opposition leaders have quipped that the South African president will now work, sleep, rest and govern in opposition territory.
For those of us who have watched Mr. Zuma and his comrades drive the once great party of national liberation into the ground, something messianic does indeed seem to have arrived — in the guise of a feisty assertion of democracy that has begun to punish these people for their ineptitude, corruption and unspeakable arrogance. The A.N.C. government has gutted vital democratic institutions such as the National Prosecuting Authority and the South African Broadcasting Corporation; some of its leaders are alleged to have lined their pockets with the proceeds of state organizations and sold themselves to dodgy business interests.
Above all, the A.N.C.’s leaders have forgotten that they serve at the people’s pleasure. South Africans are angry, and enough of us showed it last week, across the lines of race and class that usually divide us, to deliver that message.
It is true that the party of Nelson Mandela still claims the allegiance of most South Africans, particularly in rural areas. This is in part sentimental — the A.N.C. has carried the aspirations of black South Africans for over a century — and in part pragmatic. The ruling party dispenses vital social grants to poor people and controls lucrative contracts sought by the climbing middle classes.
Even in the countryside, though, the party took a hit; in urban areas, it was trampled. In Gauteng Province, the industrial heartland that includes Johannesburg and Pretoria, the A.N.C. did not manage even 50 percent of the vote. This is partly because the area is more racially diverse than others, but also because so many black urban voters deserted the mother ship for the first time.
The beneficiaries were two parties, to the right and to the left, both led by driven young men. The first is the 36-year-old Mmusi Maimane of the Democratic Alliance, a party that emerged out of white liberal politics and now claims the allegiance of most of the country’s minority voters: white, Indian and “colored” (a South African term for people of mixed ethnic origin). Mr. Maimane, a lay preacher who is the Democratic Alliance’s first black leader, won over a small but significant number of more affluent black voters to the party, which took 27 percent of the vote.
The second is the 35-year-old Julius Malema, a former enfant terrible of the A.N.C. who now leads the Economic Freedom Fighters, a radical populist party appealing to the very poor with policies of public ownership and land redistribution. Only three years old, Mr. Malema’s party gained 8.2 percent of the vote nationally; today it can play the role of kingmaker in the three Gauteng cities including Johannesburg, where no party won a majority.
Both leaders, having campaigned hard against corruption, have vowed not to enter into a coalition with a Zuma-led A.N.C. Over the next feverish days, these two opposing forces will therefore have to find common ground in order to claim control of Gauteng’s cities. Although the idea of the Democratic Alliance and the Economic Freedom Fighters governing South Africa’s cities together still seems implausible, the possibility that one of them may one day govern the entire country is no longer inconceivable. Things are all up in the air as they haven’t been since the end of apartheid.
Meanwhile, the A.N.C. will try to keep control of the cities by wooing one of these two opposition parties, or some smaller groups, into a coalition. But even if it succeeds, it will remain seriously wounded, and by its own hand. Mr. Zuma has frequently scorned the “clever blacks” — his phrase — who criticize him. He has slyly shifted the party base away from its combative urban roots to rural fiefs that are easier to control.
That strategy might consolidate the rule of a patriarchal traditionalist like him, but it blindly ignores South Africa’s demographic trends: The country is already 65 percent urban, one of the highest ratios in Africa. Incubated in South Africa’s cities, the A.N.C. has long been the continent’s progressive flagship, and some have lamented the way it has, in less than a generation, become a “backwoods” party similar to Robert Mugabe’s Zanu-P.F. across the border in Zimbabwe.
Mr. Zuma’s A.N.C. simply no longer speaks to enough urban South Africans to ensure that it remains in power. Many women, in particular, loathe the president for his unsavory personal life. Besides blithely accumulating wives and sexual partners, he had, by his own admission, unprotected sex with a young ward; she subsequently accused him of rape (he was acquitted of charges).
While some black voters defected to the two opposition parties, the greater number of those who abandoned the A.N.C. in urban areas did so simply by not coming out to vote. The election’s outcome was largely determined by protest voters who have yet to find another political home. They may return to the party, particularly if it dumps Mr. Zuma and reinvigorates itself. But if he remains in office until the end of his term in 2019, as he seems set to do, the A.N.C. will continue to hemorrhage support. If current trends prevail, the A.N.C. could be out of power in the next decade.
Just one generation after Nelson Mandela’s 1994 election, South Africa’s democracy has entered an exhilarating but nerve-racking political adolescence. The A.N.C.’s electoral humiliation heralds an important new era in South African politics, one in which the messy realities of competitive multiparty democracy may well replace the ossification that sets in when a liberation movement becomes a de facto postcolonial one-party state.