South Africa’s ruling African National Congress suffered a historic defeat in the country’s capital, where it lost to the opposition Democratic Alliance in local polls, the electoral commission said Saturday.
Reacting to the worst election result for the party since the end of white-minority rule 22 years ago, President Jacob Zuma said voters had been heard.
“These elections were hotly contested, that is how it should be in a democracy,” said Zuma, who is facing questions about his position after the poll.
In Tshwane, the metropolitan area that includes Pretoria, the DA won 43.1 percent of the vote over the ANC’s 41.2 percent, according to final results.
The ANC also lost its majority in Johannesburg, the country’s economic centre, where it won 44.5 percent of the vote, and will now have to seek political allies in order to retain control.
The election results have highlighted the declining popularity of the party that led South Africa’s anti-apartheid struggle.
The setback to the ANC “happened quicker and harder than everyone thought! It’s a shocker for everyone,” said independent political analyst Ralph Mathekga.
The loss of Pretoria comes on top of the ANC conceding defeat Friday in Port Elizabeth, a key battleground of Wednesday’s municipal election.
Defeat in Port Elizabeth, by a margin of 46.7 to 40 percent, was a humiliating blow for the ruling party — the area is officially known as “Nelson Mandela Bay” after the former ANC leader.
At the national level ANC remains the nation’s top party, but it has seen its support plunge eight points from 2011, when it won 53.9 percent.
DA leader Mmusi Maimane hailed the results as a landmark for his party.
“This is a tipping point for the people of South Africa,” he said. “This represents for all of us the fact that we are a party not only of opposition, but of government.”
– ‘Dignified exit strategy’ –
Turnout was about 58 percent as voters chose mayors and other local representatives responsible for hot-button issues including water, sanitation and power supplies.
Problems providing such basics trigger regular and sometimes violent “service delivery” protests in South Africa, where harsh socio-economic divisions remain a grim legacy of the apartheid era.
Vice-president and party deputy leader Cyril Ramaphosa said the ANC would heed the electorate’s message.
“Clearly our people are sending out messages all around, we are going to listen very, very carefully. We are a listening organisation, we are going to listen to our people,” said Ramaphosa.
Zuma’s position as head of state is in question, even though his mandate still has three years to run, after the poor results of a poll widely seen as a referendum on his leadership.
He has been plagued by scandals since taking office in 2009. One revolves around his using $500,000 of public money to refurbish his private home, money the Constitutional Court says he must repay.
An unemployment rate of 27 percent and zero GDP growth forecast for this year have added to Zuma’s woes as frustration builds among poor black communities that have seen scarce improvements since apartheid fell.
Zuma, jailed on Robben Island with Mandela during apartheid, retains deep loyalty inside the ANC and in many rural areas, although he cannot stand for a third term.
“A battle in the party could emerge from these poor results and (the) ANC would have to find a dignified exit strategy for Zuma,” independent political analyst Daniel Silke told AFP.
Poor economic stewardship added to voter dissatisfaction, he added.
Despite its strong showings in Port Elizabeth and Pretoria, the DA will need coalition partners, which Silke sees as problematic.
One potential partner is radical leftist Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF).
The EFF, led by former ANC man Julius Malema, was being credited as winning around eight percent and surpassing 10 percent in Pretoria and Johannesburg.
But Silke cautioned: “I don’t think EFF is the best coalition partner for DA as they are diametrically opposed on every issue — it could be unstable.”