CAPE TOWN, South Africa—South Africa’s ruling African National Congress party has received less than 50 percent of votes in nationwide elections for the first time, emphatically confirming the declining popularity of the once-revered organization that was led by Nelson Mandela and freed the country from apartheid.

The final results of local government elections were announced Nov. 4 and saw the ANC win 46 percent of votes. It remained the largest party, with its closest opposition getting 21.83 percent.

It’s a humbling new reality for the ANC, which has governed South Africa and dominated its politics ever since the end of the racist apartheid regime in 1994. Although the ANC’s support has slipped in recent years, this time more South Africans voted for other parties in an unprecedented shift.

“The people have spoken,” said President Cyril Ramaphosa, current leader of the ANC. In an attempt to soften the stinging rebuke for his party, Mr. Ramaphosa hailed the elections as “a sign that multiparty politics is flourishing in South Africa”—a country where Blacks weren’t allowed to vote until 1994.


Mr. Ramaphosa also recognized the frustrations of millions in Africa’s most developed economy who previously put their faith in the ANC but still have poor housing and sanitation, are hit with regular electricity blackouts, are threatened by high levels of violent crime, face record unemployment of over 30 percent, and see the governing party repeatedly embroiled in corruption scandals while the economy has sunk into recession.

“Over the past few weeks, we have all spent time with South Africans from all walks of life, meeting them in the streets and being invited into their homes,” Mr. Ramaphosa said. “They told us about leaking houses, of frustration at electricity cuts, of feeling unsafe because of crime, and of being despondent after years of not working.”

The local elections decided the makeup of municipal councils that will elect mayors and run towns and cities and be responsible for delivering the basic services that many desperately need.

The ANC now only holds a governing majority in two of South Africa’s eight major metropolitan areas and must form coalitions if it is to govern in five other major cities, including the economic hub Johannesburg, the capital Pretoria, and the previous ANC stronghold of Durban on the East Coast. The opposition Democratic Alliance retained control of the city of Cape Town with an outright majority.

More than that, the results provided an indication of the sentiment of South Africans ahead of national elections in 2024, when the ANC’s position in national government will be at stake after 30 years in power, political analyst Angelo Fick said.

“The signal from the South African population is that they can imagine a situation beyond the ANC,” said Mr. Fick. The results of these local elections should tell the ANC “they are a party like everyone else,” he said.

That is something the ANC has previously appeared unable to accept, opening itself to accusations of arrogance and living off its reputation as the party that delivered freedom. Former president and party leader Jacob Zuma once said the ANC “will rule until Jesus comes back” and government minister Gwede Mantashe said—even as election results showed a sharp drop in support—the ANC “will be here forever.”

How the ANC deals now with its reality-check is crucial, Mr. Fick said, because it tests whether the party, which also faces stark internal divisions, can retain its “civic responsibility” even when not in power in more towns and cities. If it doesn’t, South Africa, seen by many as a leader of democracy for the rest of Africa, risks political instability, Mr. Fick warned.

South Africans remain uneasy after the country was rocked by its worst violence since the end of apartheid in July, when the jailing of former leader Zuma for contempt of court exacerbated the internal divisions in the ANC. The internal divisions, combined with lingering anger at widespread poverty, sparked a week of deadly unrest. There were riots, looting and the burning of shopping malls and factories in two provinces and more than 300 people died.

The local elections “signaled the beginning of the end of the ANC’s political dominance,” said the Democratic Alliance, the main opposition party, but the results laid out a more complex political landscape where the DA also lost support, and almost by as much as the ANC.

Many South Africans turned away from the established political players in favor of a range of smaller parties, which may, as a side-effect, make coalitions and the running of some towns and cities more complicated. Mr. Ramaphosa called on parties to “put aside our differences and work together in a spirit of partnership and common purpose.”

More worrying, said analysts, was that millions of South Africans abandoned the democratic process altogether, with only around 12 million people representing less than half of registered voters casting ballots in the local elections, according to the Independent Electoral Commission. It was a record-low election turnout for South Africa.

“This has been a steady trend in our democracy where we are seeing fewer and fewer people voting,” social and political analyst Tessa Dooms said on the Cape Talk radio station.

Ms. Dooms said it “speaks to the idea that people are really questioning not only a political party, or the big political parties, but they’re questioning our democratic system. They’re questioning whether or not their vote actually changes things.” (AP)