South Africa's embattled ANC squeaks past 'psychological threshold' to stay in power

South African elections boosted opposition parties at the expense of the African National Congress, whose leader Jacob Zuma may not serve out a full second term.

By , Correspondent

South Africa's African National Congress party will return to power with more than 62 percent of this week's national election. The results came in just above the 60 percent threshold widely seen as a requirement for governing comfortably – and boosted, for now, President Jacob Zuma, who spent most of the campaign season mired in scandal. 

The surprisingly high turnout – 2 million more people than expected – and the peaceful vote ‎are being celebrated as a maturing of Africa's flagship democracy. But while the ANC was widely expected to win its fifth straight term, the emergence of new opposition parties underscores the fact that it can no longer rely on its stature as the party of liberation from apartheid to guarantee victory.

Indeed, the 2014 vote was notable for the emergence of parties that were either new or previously seen as fringe. The Democratic Alliance headed by Helen Zille garnered 22.4 percent, up from 17 percent four years ago; and the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF), formed only last October by expelled ANC youth leader Julius Malema, came in third, with 6.2 percent of the vote.

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‎The ANC is now expected to respond by encouraging foreign investment, spur growth, and create jobs to drive down high unemployment. The plan includes a firmer hand over mine strikes that have blighted the economy, a move that risks alienating the ANC's left-wing allies.

At the same time, many analysts believe that President Zuma, whose standing has been damaged by controversy over high expenditures on his private home, may not serve out a full second term.

"‎If the ANC underperforms, loses Johannesburg and other major cities in the 2016 municipal [local] elections, President Zuma is likely to step down as national, and possibly party president, at or immediately after the ANC's electoral leadership conference in 2017," says Robert Besseling of the US-based IHS Country Risk market analysts. He expects Zuma will begin grooming a successor.

Voters: Deal with corruption

Indeed, analysts say the slight dip in votes sent the message that the party of Nelson Mandela needs to work harder to fight corruption and improve delivery of services.

In the voting lines Wednesday, people stressed not the outright virtue of the ANC but the need to alleviate poverty and generate viable jobs for youths. Some voters said they backed other parties in a bid to shake the ANC from complacency.

Ingrid Moloi, a black community worker from Alexandra township in Johannesburg, voted for the Democratic Alliance for the first time since black South Africans were allowed to vote in 1994. 

“After 20 years there are still a lot of challenges. They need to be fixed,” she says. “I feel sad, but there's nothing I can do. We need to vote for opposition parties so they can push the government. We need people who are working for us."

Others have given up on the ANC entirely. Basetsana Shihlane, a young black woman in Alexandra, said that neither she nor her five siblings had jobs, and that she would be voting for EFF because of its radical policies of mine nationalization and white land grabs, which could drive change. 

“Malema is my choice. We hope maybe the ideas he has will bring change," she says.

Alternative voices rise

Zuma is a key factor in wavering support for the ANC.

 “We support the ANC and we will vote for them because they must stay in power, but we don’t support Zuma,” said one person who did not give his name. “I would say 75 percent of ANC people don’t want him.”

That sentiment has given rise to some surprising alternatives. Ms. Zille, the white leader of the Democratic Alliance, has seen her own party nearly split the vote with the ANC in the powerful province of Gauteng, home to Johannesburg and Pretoria. The DA appears to have finally liberated itself from its perception as a white and Afrikaner party after fielding a number of compelling black candidates and taking on the ANC with its platform, not race or ethnicity.  

Mr. Malema's EFF, which advocates for the nationalization of mines, confirmed predictions that it would defeat most other more established parties and become a new opposition voice. The party took third place and won at least 14 seats in parliament.

Malema, a charismatic 33-year-old who appeals to black youths and the disenfranchised, was expelled from the ANC for speaking against the party line. His rallies this spring were large, and he is likely to be a noisy voice challenging his nemesis, Zuma.

Mbuyiseni Ndlozi, the EFF spokesman, said the half-million who voted for them indicated that South Africans are disillusioned with the government.

"Most of us want to be part of running this country so it is very important that we listen attentively to what they have to say," Mr. Ndlozi said.

High security – and peace

The vote took place amid high security after protesters burned tires and voting tents and clashed with police in a number of townships. On election day, however, there was no violence. In Bekkersdal, a scene of earlier trouble, Winnie Madikizela-Mandela, Mandela's ex-wife, went on a walkabout. She was followed soon afterward by Musi Maimane, the DA’s candidate for Gauteng.

“This community has called for the government to respond but no one ever does,” Mr. Maimane said. “The issues they face are not going to be solved by the current regime. They have to be changed by a change of leadership.”

But Mosotho Moepya, the nation's top election official, saw promise in the high turnout: "My view is that the kind of issues we are dealing with indicate the extent to which our democracy has matured.”

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