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South Africa's African National Congress loses absolute majority for the first time

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

The party of Nelson Mandela has lost its outright majority. The African National Congress, the ANC, has dominated politics in South Africa since the first election after Apartheid 30 years ago. Now the party must form a coalition. There are questions about the future of South Africa's president, Cyril Ramaphosa. NPR's Emmanuel Akinwotu is in Johannesburg. Emmanuel, thanks for being with us.

EMMANUEL AKINWOTU, BYLINE: Thanks for having me.

SIMON: This is a momentous loss, isn't it?

AKINWOTU: Yes, exactly. It's a historic defeat. You know, the ANC got just over 40% of the vote. That's more than 3 million votes fewer than they had in the last election in 2019. So really just a watershed moment - and, you know, they're still the largest party, still with formidable support, but their support is increasingly fragile, and they will now have to go into a partnership or a coalition with at least one party in order to form a government. And it likely spells a new era of coalition politics, coalition governments in South Africa.

Of course, the big reason for the ANC's decline and probably the story of this election is the revenge of former President Jacob Zuma, formerly of the ANC, essentially bringing down his former party, and he's had really a stunning fall and rise. You know, in 2018, he had to resign due to corruption allegations that he's still being tried for, by the way. And now he's orchestrating the worst ever result for the ANC.

His left-wing populist party's called uMkhonto weSizwe, or MK. It formed just six months ago, and now they're the third-largest party in the country. At the Results Center, the ANC's Deputy Secretary General, Nomvula Mokonyane - she admitted that this was a real blow for the party.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

NOMVULA MOKONYANE: It is unfortunate that we're contesting against an organizer and an activist of the ANC, a president of the ANC. What has come out is exactly what was our concern.

SIMON: Emmanuel, the ANC has been losing support for years now, hasn't it?

AKINWOTU: Yes, exactly. A few percent every election since 2004 and now a really steep decline - and the reasons why are clear whenever you speak to people in South Africa. It's so easy to see the despair at high unemployment, you know, among the highest rates in the world, rising crime, water shortages, electricity shortages. It comes up time and time again.

This is a country that has clearly progressed since the apartheid era, especially in the first few terms. But for too many people, it's not been enough, and especially over the last decade, many people feel the country has regressed. I spoke to Tessa Dooms. She's a director at the Rivonia Circle think tank in South Africa, and she put it this way.

TESSA DOOMS: On the one hand, we overcame apartheid as a structural force, and on the other hand, we have not actually changed many of the dynamics. We inherited inequality of one form, and we have doubled down on inequality in South Africa in another form going forward.

SIMON: Emmanuel, what's the fate now of President Ramaphosa?

AKINWOTU: Well, he's in a tough position overseeing the party's worst ever result. We'll see how that unravels. The big question now is who he chooses to go into a coalition with. He can either try and essentially unite the ANC and go into coalition with MK, but that's going to be very tough and divisive. Similarly, if he goes with the center-right Democratic Alliance, largely led by the white minority, that's going to be divisive, too. So it's going to be really tough - a tough few weeks ahead for the ANC.

SIMON: Well, thank you so much for being with us.

AKINWOTU: Thanks for having me.

SIMON: NPR's Emmanuel Akinwotu in Johannesburg.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHILLY GONZALES' "WHITE KEYS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Emmanuel Akinwotu
Emmanuel Akinwotu is an international correspondent for NPR. He joined NPR in 2022 from The Guardian, where he was West Africa correspondent.
Scott Simon is one of America's most admired writers and broadcasters. He is the host of Weekend Edition Saturday and is one of the hosts of NPR's morning news podcast Up First. He has reported from all fifty states, five continents, and ten wars, from El Salvador to Sarajevo to Afghanistan and Iraq. His books have chronicled character and characters, in war and peace, sports and art, tragedy and comedy.