From its founding in 1912, the African National Congress led the struggle against white-minority rule in South Africa. After eight decades of sacrifice and perseverance — during which its charismatic leader, Nelson Mandela served 27 years in prison — it finally toppled the racist apartheid regime that governed the country. In 1994, Mandela became the first president of the new South Africa.
For its work, the ANC earned the loyal support of South Africa's black voters. Since 1994, there's never been a president elected from any other political party, and voters in repeated landslide elections have handed the ANC solid control of the national Parliament. President Jacob Zuma — ANC, of course — has said that the party will rule South Africa "until Jesus comes back."
But he might want to revise that prediction after last week's municipal elections, in which the ANC suffered its worst losses ever. The party lost control of the capital, Pretoria, and of the Nelson Mandela Bay area (where 10 years ago it received 66% of the vote). The party held Johannesburg, one of the nation's largest cities, but only narrowly, with less than a majority.
These are ominous results for the party, which faces national elections in 2019. They are a boost for the Democratic Alliance, the centrist party that already governs Cape Town, and for the left-wing Economic Freedom Fighters party.
The outcome should surprise no one, however. The ANC has not performed well in recent years. Under Mandela, the country held free elections, conducted a riveting truth-and-reconciliation process, built a respected multiracial judicial system and permitted a free press. But since then there have been corruption scandals and internal party squabbles. The country suffers from economic stagnation, high unemployment and enormous inequality, reminding voters of the ANC's failure to follow through on promises to redistribute income and deliver opportunity to millions of black South Africans who were denied it for so long. Corruption charges have been brought against Zuma for racketeering, fraud and money laundering. The millions of taxpayer dollars spent to renovate his private residence didn't help. Nor did the rape charges against him. (He was eventually acquitted.)
Over 22 years, the ANC has squandered its enormous political advantages and can no longer take voters' support for granted.
For South Africans, though, this could be a positive development, if all goes well. Multiparty politics are healthy in a democracy. Electoral competition holds political players accountable. Viable opposition parties offer checks on power. True electoral choice could either force the ANC to put its house in order or be tossed aside.
Standing as a cautionary tale is neighboring Zimbabwe, where the brutal Robert Mugabe clings to the presidency nearly 30 years after the end of white-minority rule. With a more vibrant democracy, South Africa could be spared the same fate.