South Africa: 30 years after Mandela’s post-apartheid victory, ANC suffers historic election defeat

June 3, 2024
tally room screen and Mazibuko Jara inset
With its final vote share likely to be about 40%, the ANC will now have to look for coalition partners if it hopes to form government. Inset: Mazibuko Jara. Main photo: @myanc/X

The African National Congress (ANC) has lost its parliamentary majority, which it held since electing Nelson Mandela as South Africa’s first Black president 30 years ago, following the May 29 general elections.

With its final vote share likely to be about 40% — down from 57.5% at the 2019 elections — the ANC will now have to look for coalition partners if it hopes to form government.

The biggest winner in the elections, however, was not the traditional opposition party, the Democratic Alliance (DA). Rather it was the recently formed uMkhonto we Sizwe (MK) party — led by former ANC president Jacob Zuma — which looks set to win about 15% of the vote.

Speaking to Green Left’s Federico Fuentes just prior to the elections, South African socialist Mazibuko Jara discussed the reasons for the ANC’s declining support and MK’s rise.

* * *

Given its declining support, how has the ANC tried to revert this situation? And why has it been unsuccessful?

In previous elections, the ANC would proudly say: “If you vote for the DA” — the main white liberal party — “then you will see the return of apartheid.” This time around, they [did] not have the confidence or coherence to say that.

I think this is partly due to the fact that the liberal-conservative opposition, and the media supporting them, has installed in public discourse the notion that you cannot continue blaming apartheid forever. That message has caught on in a significant way, particularly among younger generations.

The ANC has been trying to say that the ANC’s story has been a good story for everyone. They have pointed to significant changes that have affected people’s lives in the areas of water, electricity, social security grants, housing, infrastructure and education.

But all these changes have been significantly hampered by neoliberalism, continuing apartheid geography and corruption.

The Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) have used this to attack the ANC and speak out against its neoliberalism. Meanwhile, the liberal-conservative opposition have responded by showing that they can implement the ANC’s neoliberal policy better than the ANC because they appear not to be as nakedly corrupt as the ANC.

Another way the ANC has sought to respond to its decline in support has been through different episodes of what it has called organisational renewal.

For example, the last ANC conference in 2022 elected a new National Executive Committee that contains many new and younger faces.

But while they are younger and appear cleaner than the older leaders, they remain within the fold of the ANC and the state. What they are ultimately attempting to do is provide a legitimate gloss to the same neoliberal trajectory.

Moreover, even some of the new leaders have been implicated in corruption. The most obvious case is [outgoing] President Cyril Ramaphosa, who was unable to account for the $4 million he was supposedly holding in foreign currency — illegal due to limits on how much foreign currency an individual can hold — before it was stolen from his home.

All this demonstrates the ANC’s contradiction: this new block of younger leaders has promised to renew the ANC but is perpetuating the same old policies and corruption.

Also important is that when it comes to cleaning up the state, the ANC have not been able to offer any real program for tackling corruption or confidently building a progressive developmental state agenda.

The ANC has failed to take any decisive action against corruption, for example by criminally prosecuting those who have been exposed for corruption by various government Commissions of Inquiry or where evidence has been taken to the police. There has never been a genuine, principled and sustained political push to ensure people were prosecuted.

That is why, despite the attempt to present a cleaner face, corruption is the reason why the ANC’s message falls flat.

This incoherence and lack of political will means that today there is not a single ANC candidate who can confidently and publicly say: “Let’s rebuild a public Eskom [electricity company], let’s rebuild a public Transnet [rail, port and pipeline company] that is accountable and democratically controlled rather than based on profits.”

Whatever they say is half-hearted and unconvincing. This points to how discredited the ANC is in the public eye.

Unfortunately, that discrediting of the ANC has also discredited the idea of public ownership as an alternative. Even the South African Communist Party (SACP) and Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU) are no longer consistent, bold, clear or impactful in putting forward alternative perspectives in favour of public ownership.

Overall, the ANC-Communist Party-COSATU alliance has proven incapable of providing strategic answers for society. The result is that the ANC is no longer the glue that can hold society together.

It was able to do that under Nelson Mandela and Thabo Mbeki — even if they too implemented neoliberal policies — because they were able to project the image of a clean state, even as the seeds of corruption were taking root around them.

But the new forces leading the ANC have not been able to do that.

The ANC's decline seems to have been hastened by Zuma’s decision to split and back MK. What does MK represent in SA politics?

MK originates from a faction within the ANC that referred to itself as the Radical Economic Transformation (RET) forces.

Broadly speaking, the RET forces argued for nationalisation but did so from within the logic of state capitalism and often with the aim of resolving their own accumulation problems.

For example, when the RET faction argued in favour of nationalising mines, they were promoting the agenda of certain new mine owners, in particular junior ones, that had run into financial crisis due to declining commodity prices. In their cases, nationalisation would have saved them from this crisis.

The RET forces never spoke about building state capacity or democratic accountability over public companies and pointed to [Russian president Vladimir] Putin as leading RET forces globally.

Zuma, himself a former SACP member, pretended he supported the RET agenda. For this, he received support from SACP and COSATU leaders in the period from 2005 to the end of 2020. This meant those forces ended up being implicated in Zuma’s rotten state-capture project, which was riddled with naked corruption.

Subsequent to Zuma’s ANC presidency coming to an end in December 2017 and ultimately being forced to resign as the country’s president in February 2019, the Ramaphosa wing dealt several blows against the RET forces, including expelling the RET-aligned ANC secretary general Ace Magashule last year.

His expulsion became a point of mobilisation for some of those who went on to form MK.

What is interesting to note is that, even before it had developed clear political positions, MK was able to obtain mass support in certain parts of the country, in particular the KwaZulu-Natal, Gauteng and Mpumalanga provinces. This was because Zuma’s figure has been able to mobilise public support.

But so far, no other senior ANC figure has crossed over to the MK party, unlike the previous split in 2008 that led to the formation of the Congress of the People (COPE). This too, is due to Zuma’s involvement.

MK’s election manifesto is basically a quite confused set of demands. On LGBTQIA+ and sexual rights they are quite conservative, but they also have a mishmash of radical-sounding economic policies, much like that of the RET forces.

So, from the perspective of democratic rights, political rights and economic rights, MK is a backward step; when it comes to economic policy, it has a confused set of demands that seeks to tap into the still existing radical sentiment within society for radical change.

MK has aligned themselves with Zulu tribal chiefs — which are among the most reactionary elements in South Africa society — as well as conservative forces within the church.

Overall, MK represents both a shift to the right and a response to the emergence of two other right-wing parties: ActionSA, an explicitly neoliberal and xenophobic party, and Patriotic Alliance, a coloured nationalist party (by coloured I am referring to mixed race people within the post-apartheid context). MK is trying to cut off space for ActionSA and the Patriotic Alliance.

Ultimately, there is nothing progressive in the politics they put forward.

[Read the full version of this interview at]

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