If South Africa’s first democratic election in 1994 provided what observers called a “designer outcome” in which the three major parties at the time all secured significant prizes, the country’s sixth general election in early May was its polar opposite: a vote in which the three principal players all experienced setbacks and had reason to be disappointed. The 1994 electoral outcome helped stabilize the new political dispensation after apartheid. It remains to be seen if this year’s result will usher in a new era of instability and fragmentation.
With 57.5 percent of the national vote, the ruling African National Congress recorded its worst general election performance of the post-apartheid era, down almost 5 percentage points from its more than 62 percent share in 2014. It was also the first time the party has fallen below the 60 percent threshold in a general election. Its vote declined across all nine of South Africa’s provinces, although its existing majorities were often so huge that it was able to absorb those losses and still secure a comfortable, often overwhelming, victory in most of them. But in the most populous province, the country’s economic hub of Gauteng, which includes Johannesburg and Pretoria, the ANC only won by a whisker, with barely 50 percent of the vote and a one-seat majority over all the other parties.
Still, for the opposition Democratic Alliance, the election outcome was borderline disastrous. It failed to meet any of its pre-election targets and, in a first for the party, its share of the national vote actually declined from around 22 percent in 2014—and 27 percent in the 2016 local elections—to 20 percent in 2019. It failed to dislodge the ANC in Gauteng and fell well short in another target province, the Northern Cape. It was also replaced as the main opposition party in the province of KwaZulu-Natal. Even in the Western Cape, where it retained control, it lost votes.