Image source, Gallo ImagesImage caption, President Cyril Ramaphosa was supposed to halt the ANC's loss of support

The governing African National Congress (ANC) has dipped below 50% of the vote for the first time in South Africa's democratic history. Results from Monday's local elections have left the party of Nelson Mandela politically wounded.

"We are eating this elephant bit by bit," were the words echoed by Julius Malema, the leader of third biggest party the Economic Freedom Fighters, as a clear picture emerged that the ANC was losing support across the country.

Yet there is no anti-ANC majority coalition, because South Africa's opposition parties are ideologically very divided.

The official results show:

  • The ANC got 46% of the vote
  • The main opposition Democratic Alliance (DA) 22%
  • The left-wing Economic Freedom Fighters 10%
  • The Zulu Inkatha Freedom Party (IFP) 6%
  • The majority Afrikaner party Freedom Front Plus 2%
  • And the newly minted ActionSA also 2%

Acknowledging that coalition governments will be the order of the day, President Cyril Ramaphosa, chosen by the ANC in 2018 to halt the party's ebbing support, said: "If we are to make this a new and better era, we as leaders must put aside our differences."

What happens next?

Dogged by a string of corruption allegations in the lead-up to the municipal polls, the ANC is now forced to eat humble pie and be the first to approach other parties about forming coalitions.

Once the Independent Electoral Commission declares the election, there is a window of 14 days for the councils to hold their first meeting. The speaker, who must be elected first, then has to oversee the appointment of a mayor.

Based on the chaos and violence witnessed in 2016, this process is expected to be disruptive and hotly contested.

The formation of coalitions could also be difficult due to varying political ideologies of the negotiating parties.

Image source, Getty ImagesImage caption, The EFF, led by Julius Malema, has said it will wait to be approached to form a coalition

The governing ANC was already losing support in the 2016 election. It had five years to prove its worthiness but instead most South Africans continued to experience poor delivery of basic services like running water, rolling blackouts and political in-fighting.

The DA, which gets most of its support from white and coloured (mixed-race) voters, has previously ruled out the prospect of ever governing with the EFF. While ActionSA has said working with the ANC would be equal to enabling corruption.

It is understood that informal coalition talks have begun between the ANC and DA, while the EFF has said it will wait to be approached as its support has grown steadily in this election.

In the 2016 municipal polls, the ANC had nearly 54% of the national vote, the DA 27% and the EFF 8%. This year the EFF has grown steadily while the DA has lost some ground in its traditional strongholds.

There is no doubt that behind closed doors, the ANC leadership sees the results as a huge indictment. But in front of the cameras, party leaders tell a different story.

"We're not losers, we are the winning party," said ANC deputy Secretary General Jessie Duarte. "Yes our numbers have gone down but that doesn't make us losers… we don't disrespect the electorate, they've put us in this position and we are not uncomfortable in this position."

Image source, AFPImage caption, The Democratic Alliance is likely to work with the ANC in many areas

The ANC achieved a majority in 161 councils, the DA in 13 and the IFP in 10. A total of 66 municipalities are hung.

As things stand, the ANC and DA are likely to work together because they have the most seats.

Former President Jacob Zuma's influence in the outcome of this election could well be overstated, but his supporters had vowed to punish the governing party for jailing him. The ANC suffered a bruising defeat in key cities like Johannesburg, Pretoria and Gqeberha (formerly known as Port Elizabeth). The party also lost its majority in KwaZulu-Natal, which is the largest ANC region and also Mr Zuma's home province.

ActionSA's 2% share of the vote nationwide is a significant achievement for a party formed at the height of the coronavirus pandemic that did not contest in all of South Africa's provinces.

Image source, Getty ImagesImage caption, ActionSA is led by Herman Mashaba, a former mayor of Johannesburg

The party has chewed away at some of the DA and ANC vote in the big cities including Johannesburg and Pretoria.

It is widely believed that ActionSA, led by former Johannesburg mayor Herman Mashaba, could have gained more support if he were not viewed by some as a xenophobe. Mr Mashaba has insisted he was misunderstood, adding that he condemns xenophobia yet also promising to deliver laws and policies to prevent undocumented immigrants entering South Africa if elected.

It seems many people who normally would have voted for the DA chose the Freedom Front Plus (FF+). Its gains cannot be ignored.

Coalition negotiations and new alliances are set to change South Africa's political landscape. This election could serve as a test for what is to be expected in the 2024 general election, which could be the most important polls since the end of white-minority rule in 1994.