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Early South Africa election results put ruling ANC below 50%

This year could be the tipping point when most South Africans turn away from the ANC and end its dominance of post-apartheid democracy.

Election volunteers count ballots in Johannesburg

Early counts in South Africa’s national election put the long-ruling African National Congress on just over 42% of the vote, raising the possibility that it might lose its majority for the first time since it swept to power under Nelson Mandela at the end of apartheid in 1994.

With just over 16% of votes counted and declared, it was only a partial picture after Wednesday’s election.

The final results of a vote that could bring the biggest political shift in South Africa’s young democracy are expected to take days, with the independent electoral commission saying they will be delivered by Sunday.

South Africans are set waiting with bated breath to see if their country, Africa’s most advanced economy, is about to see momentous change.

South Africa Election
Ballot boxes wait to be opened for the vote count at Craighall Park Elementary school in Johannesburg (Jerome Delay/AP)

The electoral commission was projecting a 70% voter turnout, up from the 66% in the last national election in 2019. The ANC won 57.5% of the vote in that last poll, its worst performance to date.

This election was seen as a direct referendum on the unbroken three-decade rule of the ANC, which freed South Africa from the oppressive, racist apartheid regime in the famous all-race vote of 1994 but has seen a steady decrease in its popularity over the last 20 years.

This year could be the tipping point when most South Africans turn away from the ANC and deny it a majority for the first time.

The results that have been declared are from fewer than 4,000 of the more than 23,000 polling stations across the nine provinces that make up South Africa and there is a long way to go in the counting process. Nearly 28 million people out of South Africa’s population of 62 million were registered to vote.

The burning question their votes will answer is if the ANC’s dominance of South Africa’s post-apartheid democracy will come to an end. Several opinion polls had gauged the ANC’s support at below 50% ahead of the election, an unprecedented situation.

South Africa Election
South African President Cyril Ramaphosa said after casting his vote that he is confident the ANC will get a ‘firm majority’ (Jerome Delay/AP)

South African President and ANC leader Cyril Ramaphosa said after voting on Wednesday that he is still confident his party will get a “firm majority”, but it is faced with more opposition than ever.

That political opposition is spread across an array of other parties, however, and the ANC is still widely expected to be the biggest party and have the most seats in Parliament.

But if its vote does drop below 50% for the first time, it is likely to need a coalition to remain in government and an agreement with others to re-elect Mr Ramaphosa. That has never happened before.

South Africans vote for parties and not directly for their president in national elections. Those parties then get seats in Parliament according to their share of the vote and politicians elect the president.

The ANC has always had a clear parliamentary majority since 1994 and so the president has always been from the ANC.

South Africa Election
Former South African president Jacob Zuma’s new MK Party had the fourth biggest share of the early count (AP Photo/Emilio Morenatti)

Though the vast majority of votes are still to be counted, the early results put the main opposition Democratic Alliance at around 25% and the Economic Freedom Fighters party at around 8%.

They also reflect the possible immediate impact of the new MK Party of former president Jacob Zuma, who has turned against the ANC he once led and added to their loss of support. The MK Party had the fourth biggest share of the early count, just behind the EFF.

The electoral commission’s prediction of a high turnout reflected Wednesday’s picture, as South Africans queued deep into the night to make their choice, reviving memories for some of the definitive election of 1994 that changed a country.

While polls officially closed at 9pm, voting continued for hours after that in many places as officials noted a late surge of late ballots being cast in major cities like Johannesburg and Cape Town. The rules say that anyone queuing at a polling station by the closing time must be allowed to vote.

It suggested South Africans had embraced how consequential this election might be.

South Africa Election
Electoral workers empty a ballot box during the count at Itireleng informal settlement in Pretoria (Themba Hadebe/AP)

South Africa is Africa’s most advanced country but has struggled to solve a profuse inequality that has kept millions in poverty three decades after the segregation of apartheid ended.

That inequality and widespread poverty disproportionately affects the black majority who make up more than 80% of the country’s population. South Africa has one of the worst unemployment rates in the world and also struggles with a high rate of violent crime.

Voters noted those issues and others, like ANC corruption scandals over the years and problems with basic government services, as their main grievances.

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