It’s election season, ya’ll. You can tell by the proliferation of posters on every street pole you pass and the constant headlines about new parties forming. If it seems like there are more of those than usual, it’s because this year’s national election – on our 30th birthday as a democracy – is a make-or-break one: The ANC, which has been in power since apartheid ended in 1994, may actually lose power. That’s because the last local government election was a bit of a harbinger: 

Quick explainer: the country has two major types of elections, each of which runs on separate timelines. Each happens every five years. The local government elections – next up in 2026 – sees us choosing parties to govern our cities and towns, who then put in place mayors, etc. The national government elections – the big one coming up this year – is where we elect our provincial and national political parties – those parties then choose our premiers, ministers and president. 

So what happened in the last local government elections that shook everyone up? It was in 2021, and for the first time in any country-wide election since the end of apartheid, the ANC received well UNDER 50% of the votes. They didn’t lose the presidency as it was a local government election, and total votes don’t really count, but it did mean that a new trend was set ahead of the next national election where the presidency IS up for grabs. Bear in mind though, provincial and national election results aren’t necessarily directly comparable. The ANC typically performs worse in local government elections vs national, but still, it feels like we’re at something of a tipping point. 

So now everyone and their cousin, it seems, is starting a new political formation, not to mention disgruntled dodgy dudes like Ace Magashule and Jacob Zuma leaving the ANC to start their own parties. But would they actually emerge as the winners and govern this beautiful but hard-done country of ours, and what would those possible power-sharing and coalition agreements look like? Read on to find out more about the top three parties in the country at the moment. 

The top three:

The African National Congress, along with the official opposition Democratic Alliance, in its different formations since 1994, have long faced off, with the ANC holding dominance while the DA slowly gained votes. In July 2013, the Economic Freedom Fighters was launched after the ANC’s youth league leader, Julius Malema, famously fell out with the mother party and launched his own youth-focused alternative. 

Other mainstream players include the Freedom Front Plus (FF+), appealing to conservative Afrikaans votes, the United Democratic Front (UDF) and the Inkatha Freedom Party (IFP). 

  1. The ANC

The country’s liberation party has steadily fallen in the polls as its many corruption scandals ratcheted up. This pattern accelerated under Jacob Zuma’s disastrous leadership of the party between 2007 and 2017 (The ANC leadership terms run differently to the country’s – Zuma was the country’s president from 2009 to 2018). The ANC has gone from nearly 67% of the vote in a national election at its height in 2004 under Thabo Mbeki to 57.5% in the last national election in 2019. The state capture scandal under Zuma seems to be the party’s final undoing. His successor, Cyril Ramaposa’s attempts to “self-correct” have largely failed thanks to being so INCREDIBLY slow. Ramaphosa tends to overconsult and underact. While large-scale looting has mostly stopped, the economy has crumbled along with key state services like Eskom and Transnet. Both state utilities, responsible for our electricity and much of our exports, respectively, have posted record worst output results under his leadership. According to various surveys there is a strong chance the ANC will lose its majority to govern nationally. One study by the Inclusive Society Institute (ISI) late last year put their support at just 33%. But even if it doesn’t, it may lose another province, like Gauteng or KwaZulu-Natal – it currently governs all provinces except the DA-run Western Cape. 

  1. The DA

The country’s current official opposition started off as something of a joke under Tony Leon in the early nineties but went on to become a viable option, even winning the Western Cape and running it pretty well, if financial audits are anything to go by. However, the party, which has always had something of a racial transformation problem, lost its way when it parachuted former leader Mmusi Maimane into the role, then fired him over poor election results after the 2019 elections – its first decline since democracy where it lost nearly over a percentage point to fall to 21.16% of the vote. Since then, it has haemorrhaged talented black leaders (the DA’s long-serving Khume Ramulifho is the latest to leave, announced this week) and swung increasingly to the conservative white right – a puzzling move as it’s a constituency already dominated by the FF+. This may see its share of the vote fall even further as it alienates black voters – the country’s majority. However, the DA could see an upswing given how dire the other options are and based on their largely clean governance in the Western Cape. 

  1. The EFF

Launched in 2013, the party rode the wave of anti-ANC sentiment following the Marikana Massacre, positioning itself as a radical left, pro-worker alternative. However, true socialists would have problems with the party’s constant entanglement in corruption scandals, a hallmark of their time in the ANC – from the VBS bank issues, which saw vulnerable pensioners robbed, to the vehicle fleet deal, when they were supporting the DA’s then-mayor Herman Mashaba in the City of Johannesburg. This turned out to be a bit of an unholy, you-scratch-my-back-I’ll-scratch-yours alliance. Investigative journalists amaBhungane reported that before controversially winning a mega-deal from the city, a fleet firm made payments to a company whose account was used for the benefit of Julius Malema and his party.

Still the party has steadily grown, and at least three surveys along with the ISI study see it putting on a strong showing this election, depending on the youth voter turnout.  

Indeed, the EFF’s political partnership style has seen many metros across the country experience serious disruption. The EFF often holds the kingmaker role, meaning that while it doesn’t have enough votes to govern, neither does anyone else. Thus, bigger parties are reliant on the EFF and other smaller parties to make up a majority and actually govern – as was the case with Mashaba in Johannesburg. The trouble is the EFF will switch allegiances mercilessly depending on the way the political winds are blowing. They’re not the only ones to blame, of course, with most political parties putting expediency above citizens’ needs in this wild new world of coalition politics that is increasingly South Africa’s norm. This has been the case since the 2021 local government election, which saw the ANC losing its majority in even more of South Africa’s eight major cities, aka metros. It now has a majority in just two of these – Buffalo City (East London) and Mangaung (Bloemfontein).

As I said before, many pundits believe that the local government election – which saw us voting just for cities and towns – is the scene setter for this year’s national elections: the big one that sees who will govern our provinces and the country as a whole – think, the president and ministers. 

If the period since the local government elections is anything to go by, we will see similar coalition and power-sharing agreements come to the fore. But they have to be done better than we’ve seen at the local level, or the same issues wreaking havoc in coalition-led towns and cities will play out at a national level. 

In my next piece coming out on Monday, I will tackle the newbies in the political scene, smaller parties, and the coalition agreement trying to bring certain opposition parties together to unseat the ANC. Stay tuned!

Update: see the second part of this guide on new political parties here.

Image accreditation: Mari Dahl Adolfsson on Flickr