With nearly all of the votes counted in South Africa’s municipal elections, the opposition Democratic Alliance appears poised to win the leadership of three major cities, handing the party of the late Nelson Mandela its most significant electoral defeat of the post-apartheid era.
On Friday morning, the BBC reported that the Democratic Alliance had won Nelson Mandela Bay with 46 percent of the vote, and appeared to be locked in a close fight with the African National Congress in Johannesburg and Pretoria.
On Saturday, the Associated Press reported that the ANC lost in the metropolitan area that includes the country's capital, Pretoria. The race for South Africa's largest city, Johannesburg, remained too close to call with less than 1 percent of votes left to be counted
The ANC, which has won over 60 percent of the vote in every election since 1994, will still net the majority of votes cast, getting around 54 percent in localities across the country – well over the Democratic Alliance’s 28 percent.
But the trend toward opposition control in urban hubs of population and industry may signal a watershed moment in the country’s history.
"It is kind of a referendum on the ANC's rule," says Sean Jacobs, a Cape Town-born professor of international affairs at The New School, in New York, and founding editor of the blog Africa is a Country. "In this election, all the parties campaigned as national parties, not for Councilor X or Councilor Y. [President Jacob] Zuma was on billboards" for the ANC throughout the country, regardless of who the local candidate was.
Dr. Jacobs tells The Christian Science Monitor that the ANC's response to the election results might depend on rates of voter turnout, particularly among the party's traditional bases of support, lower-income and black South Africans.
"If turnout is low, then the ANC can say that black people didn't come out to vote," he says. But if turnout was as high as expected, he added, losses may seem particularly worrying for the party of President Mandela, who led the country into the post-apartheid era.
The results come in the midst of economic challenges. Over a quarter of the population is unemployed, historically underdeveloped townships ringing cities still lack reliable services, and the economy contracted in the first quarter of 2016. But a political crisis seems to be compounding those resentments.
Reports of official corruption – including allegations involving President Zuma – have angered the public and riled suspicion of political institutions. Citizens’ trust in the president has nearly halved since 2011, from 62 percent to 34 percent, according to polling group Afrobarometer, and confidence in parliamentary and local authorities has fallen dramatically, too.
Even as data shows slight improvements in the well-being of the nation's humblest, 64 percent of South Africans told pollsters that the country is going in the wrong direction in fall 2015.
Discontent has expressed itself in near-constant protests leading up to the elections. In late June, protests in the capital of Pretoria turned to riots that ended in five deaths; two of those killed were looters who were shot dead. The unrest originated with low-level ANC members who were angry with their party’s choice for mayor, as the Monitor noted at the time – a symptom of a party whose elite are seen as profoundly disconnected from its ordinary members.
Such frustrations may have stimulated the public appetite for participation in democratic processes – especially among young people.
Past surveys have found that many South Africans’ evaluation of their democracy was based largely on how they saw their country’s economic situation. In 2002, political scientist Robert Mattes, now at the University of Cape Town, wrote that 60 percent of South Africans saw socioeconomic goods as “essential” to democracy, compared to just 35 percent who said the same about regular elections, multiparty competition, and freedom of speech.
“I think that’s changing,” said Dr. Jacobs. Before, “most black South Africans probably assumed that democratic rule meant your life improving. The assumption was that it was the ANC that would do it.”
But now, “South Africa has a very young population, and a lot of people have no experience with parties other than the ANC,” he adds. For them, the legacy of the ANC’s triumph over apartheid no longer carries much weight, he added. “It’s like something in a history book.”
[Editor's note: The original story incorrectly characterized the Democratic Alliance's situation in three major cities.]