Why South African Voters Turned Against the A.N.C.

6 min read

A bell tolled on TV, signaling a shift in the results tallied so far. From their home in northern Johannesburg, the Mathivha family celebrated the latest update: with the majority of votes counted, the African National Congress had earned a mere 41 percent.

“Good!” said Buhle Mathivha, pointing at the television screen.

“Good,” her husband, Khathu Mathivha, echoed.

“It should continue to decline, they are too arrogant,” Ms. Mathivha said.

The couple sat in front of a cozy fire on Friday evening in South Africa where it is almost winter, watching news coverage of what was to be a watershed election. For the first time since the end of apartheid in 1994, the party once led by Nelson Mandela failed to win an outright majority of the votes in a national election.

While the African National Congress, or A.N.C., remains the leading party in the May 29 election, the latest tally is widely viewed as a political defeat and a rebuke from voters like the Mathivhas who have become exasperated with the only party they have known since the end of apartheid. In the last election, in 2019, the A.N.C. took 57 percent of the vote. The drop to 41 percent in this election has cost the party its majority in Parliament, which elects the country’s president. Now, it will have to work with smaller opposition parties, like those the Mathivhas voted for instead of the A.N.C.

Buhle and Khathu Mathivha broke with family convention and their own previous votes when they decided not to vote for the A.N.C., a party they described as “pompous” and corrupt. Ms. Mathivha, 34, and Mr. Mathivha, 36, are part of the largest cohort of registered voters in South Africa. South Africans aged 30 to 39 make up nearly quarter of registered voters, and those slightly older, 40 to 49, make up more than a fifth.

Voting-aged South Africans born after apartheid, in 1994, have some of the lowest registration numbers, while those who endured the worst of the apartheid regime are aging. Instead, a generation who experienced the euphoria and economic growth of post-apartheid South Africa, and then the decline and despondency that followed, have soured on the A.N.C.

“Maybe they had a plan to fight apartheid, but not a plan for the economy,” Ms. Mathivha said.

The couple live in the Gauteng Province, the most populous and wealthiest region, where urban Black voters have grown resentful of the A.N.C. government’s failure to provide even the most basic services. The Mathivhas, who work in banking and tech, live on a tree-lined street in what was once a white-only suburb in Johannesburg.

In the last election, it was Mr. Mathivha’s mother, a doctor, who convinced them to give the A.N.C. one more try. As a Black South African who came of age during apartheid, there were but two medical schools Mr. Mathivha’s mother was allowed to attend. Now, her son and his wife had their pick of the best South Africa had to offer. The couple voted for the A.N.C. in 2019, but now, as Buhle and Khathu Mathivha consider their 3-year-old son’s future, they said they could not back the A.N.C.

Ms. Mathivha’s father worked as a security guard but made sure his daughter attended a well-resourced formerly white public school in Cape Town. Mr. Mathivha’s family moved from Soweto to the affluent north, where he attended similar schools. Today, they are budgeting for private school for their son, having lost faith in public schools. It will be an added expense in at a time of soaring inflation and rolling electricity blackouts.

The power cuts have not only made life more expensive, but also more dangerous. By night, their street is pitch dark and empty, because the streetlights haven’t worked in months. Their home is conveniently close to shopping malls and stores, except the business district has become a no-go zone because of crime. In 2020, robbers broke into the Mathivhas’ home and cleaned them out. When they voted last week, public safety was top of mind.

“Crime is a big thing for us,” Ms. Mathivha said.

They chose the Patriotic Alliance, a party founded about a decade ago by an ex-convict turned businessman who promised to be tough on crime. Gayton McKenzie, the party’s leader, has called for the return of the death penalty for serious crimes.

Ms. Mathivha was also impressed with Mr. McKenzie’s year as mayor of a rural district in South Africa’s Western Cape province. She pointed to his efforts to bring jobs to the town, improve infrastructure and, above all, that he didn’t take a salary. It impressed Ms. Mathivha, who used to drive through the area as a child and remembers the abject poverty she saw.

Watching the election results this week, she was dismayed that the impoverished province where her parents grew up, the Eastern Cape, still chose to vote for the A.N.C.

“I think they fear racism and apartheid more than they fear poverty,” she said.

In a down-ballot race, Mr. Mathivha voted for a party led by a white man, which is also the second-largest party, the Democratic Alliance.

“If the A.N.C. had sorted out infrastructure, policing, education, the fundamentals, I probably would have voted for them,” he said.

Despite the couple’s optimism at the result, they are worried about the instability of coalition governments. Utterances from Julius Malema that his party, the Economic Freedom Fighters, would demand a role in the finance ministry as a condition for cooperation, scared them. The party has advocated nationalizing the country’s central bank.

“It’s so that he can control the money,” Mr. Mathivha said.

“What positive could possibly come out of that?” asked his wife.

“Nothing,” her husband exclaimed.

“Thank God you are fourth,” she said of Mr. Malema’s party.

Still, Mr. Malema’s party has made inroads among the Black middle class in urban centers. But not as much as newcomer, the uMkhonto we Sizwe, or M.K. party, led by the former A.N.C. president, Jacob Zuma. Ms. Mathivha’s eyes widened as she watched the uptick that made it the third largest party. Still, like other A.N.C. breakaway parties, she hoped the M.K. party would fade into obscurity.

“More than anything,” she said, “the A.N.C. has been humbled.”

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