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It’s a new era in South Africa. The African National Congress or ANC, which led the country’s freedom struggle, has failed to secure a National Assembly majority for the first time since the fall of apartheid in 1994.

That was indeed the forecast of most pre-election surveys. But the ANC’s dismal performance in Wednesday’s general elections, whose final results were announced on Sunday, is nonetheless a political earthquake.

The ANC won just around 40 percent of the popular vote. That’s down from 57.5 percent in 2019 and the party’s historic high of 70 percent in 2004.

The ANC and South Africa are now in uncharted territory. To remain in power, the party will have to form a coalition government at the center. That’s a predicament it’s never faced at the national level. (The party led unity governments post-apartheid, but secured an outright majority on its own.)

To form a coalition government, the ANC must now choose between a grouping of second-tier parties — parties that could not be more dissimilar.

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The ANC’s Coalition Options

The ANC’s menu of options includes the center-right, predominantly white Democratic Alliance, the populist, Zulu-based MK party of former prime minister and ANC leader Jacob Zuma, and the far-left, black nationalist EFF or Economic Freedom Fighters, led by Julius Malema.

The ANC itself remains a fragmented coalition of pro-business centrists led by the incumbent President Cyril Ramaphosa, more radical economic redistributionists, and others. The choice of a coalition partner or partners could disrupt that balance and test the party’s internal cohesion as well as its relationship with its aggrieved voter base, who live in one of the world’s most unequal countries.

Frustration With the Post-Apartheid Settlement

The implications of the ANC’s coalition choices could have far-reaching effects as South Africans grapple with and reassess the post-apartheid settlement.

Today, in South Africa, blacks are nearly five times more likely to be unemployed than whites. Their household income is approximately a fifth of that of whites. And whites own over 70 percent of the private farmland, despite being less than 10 percent of the population.

The enduring economic disparity has produced a sense of disillusionment — even on election day.

While South Africa’s democracy endures amid democratic backsliding elsewhere on the continent, fewer eligible voters are choosing to register.

Registered voter turnout in last week’s polls was close to 60 percent, down from 66 percent in 2019 and 89 percent in 1999. Roughly a third of eligible voters are not registered. Those figures are much higher among the youth.

The ANC’s Tough Choices

Now, should the ANC partner with the DA, that could give comfort to global markets. And South Africa desperately needs investment.

But it would do little to address the real, immediate economic needs of the country’s black majority, who feel they’ve been shortchanged and that apartheid’s economic legacy prevails.

There’s also the risk that former President Zuma could resort to violence if his MK party is left out of power.

So the ANC faces a series of tough choices. Once in power, it must grapple with the need to maintain stability while also tackling economic inequality, poor governance, and corruption.

Impact at Home and Abroad

Now, the ANC’s choice of coalition partners could have also global reverberations. South Africa has been a more pronounced leader of the Global South in recent years, spearheading the campaign to have Israel held accountable at the International Court of Justice for what it says is a genocide that it is conducting in Gaza.

Many black South Africans feel a connection between their freedom struggle and that of the Palestinians — and the bonds between the ANC and the Palestinian national movement go back decades. But the predominantly white DA takes a more neutral if not pro-Israeli view of the conflict.

In the end, all politics is local. And for the ANC, the clock is ticking. The party has two weeks to assemble a majority coalition in parliament, which would then elect a president.

Moving forward, the ANC’s choices will determine whether the party can arrest its decline — whether this is the beginning of the end or a new beginning.

Arif Rafiq is the editor of Globely News. Rafiq has contributed commentary and analysis on global issues for publications such as Foreign Affairs, Foreign Policy, the New Republic, the New York Times, and POLITICO Magazine.

He has appeared on numerous broadcast outlets, including Al Jazeera English, the BBC World Service, CNN International, and National Public Radio.

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