Election sketches new South African political landscape

South Africa`s ruling ANC bagged three times as many votes as its nearest rival in the recent general election, but 2014 may be remembered as the dawn of multi-party politics in the "Rainbow Nation".

Pretoria: South Africa`s ruling ANC bagged three times as many votes as its nearest rival in the recent general election, but 2014 may be remembered as the dawn of multi-party politics in the "Rainbow Nation".

In the end, when the rhetoric fell silent and the final votes were tallied, it wasn`t even close.

Despite talk of a landmark election that would see a collapse in support -- garnered over decades of clandestine struggle -- for the ANC, the party freely and fairly walked away with the sort of result normally reserved for election-rigging dictatorships.

With all the votes counted on Saturday, the ANC won almost 11.5 million of a total 18.5 million votes cast. 

But while the ANC`s numerical citadel still stands tall, it`s ramparts have been breached.

The party actually attracted fewer voters than the previous elections despite a population increase, hinting that its well-oiled and well-funded electoral machine may be struggling to energise its political base.

The ANC`s share of the vote has now dropped around 11 percent in a decade.

"The victory for the ANC has come despite, rather than because of, the performance of the economy over the past five years," said Shilan Shah of Capital Economics.

"Economic growth is unlikely to exceed two-to-three percent in both the near and medium term... this will raise doubts over the ANC`s ability to retain its majority beyond 2019."

Worse still for the storied anti-apartheid party: while it sheers votes, it`s nearest rival the Democratic Alliance is rapidly gaining ground. In a country where opposition parties seem almost seasonal -- blossoming, and briefly basking in the sun before falling dormant -- the Democratic Alliance`s survival is a feat in itself.

But at this election the DA has proved itself to be a political perennial.

From an also-ran in 1994, the party has gradually increased its share of the vote nationally and since 2009 has controlled the Western Cape province.

This time round it replaced a potpourri of parties to become the official opposition in seven of the eight other provinces and saw its support jump 30 percent to break the symbolic four million mark.

Only in rural Limpopo was it pipped to the post by the populist message of Julius Malema`s Economic Freedom Fighters. 

More significantly for a party that has battled against allegations of being too elitist and too white, it is rapidly gaining black support.

"The DA grew in this election by 1.1 million votes of which 700,000 came from black South Africans," the party claimed.

"Twenty percent of our votes in this election were cast by black South Africans," said leader Helen Zille. 

"We`re on track to achieve our mission of realigning politics and unseating the ANC nationally within a decade."

Major inroads were made in urban areas, including Johannesburg, where the party won 30 percent of the vote, teeing up a competitive local election race in 2016.

But the party remains on the wrong side of all of the important demographics that could win it an election. Two decades after the advent of democracy, South Africa remains mostly black, mostly poor and mostly rural.

The DA remains mostly white, mostly rich and mostly urban, as embodied in party leader Helen Zille.

As if to underscore the DA`s demographic problems, barely 24 hours after the votes were in, its most prominent black leader Lindiwe Mazibuko abruptly quit.

Tipped as a future party leader, Mazibuko had led the DA in parliament. She decided that her time would be better spent at Harvard University.

And the DA`s support in rural areas remains minimal -- one reason the ANC was able to keep such a high score according to Nomura bank analyst Peter Attard Montalto.

"ANC support appears to have been sticky thanks to no real alternative and a strong rural voting bloc," he told clients in a note.

So while South Africa is becoming more multi-party, a complete realignment -- with politics dominated by policy rather than race -- may have to wait.

There are already mumblings about a leftist party emerging from South Africa`s powerful trade unions and the ANC`s broad tent politics raises questions about whether they can keep everyone inside.

"The ANC will either face a labour party which could really challenge it or it could face another split within its ranks in which case it may have a much more competitive election next time," said political commentator Steven Friedman.

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