JOHANNESBURG — The African National Congress, South Africa’s once-vaunted liberation movement, suffered its worst election showing since coming to power in 1994, according to the results of municipal elections released Thursday.
Facing widespread anger over corruption and collapsing services, the party won less than 50 percent of the vote nationally on Monday, the first time in its history that it has failed to cross that threshold.
Voters went to the polls on Monday to choose councilors and mayors to govern towns and cities, but they used the opportunity to vent their grievances over national issues, including record unemployment and anger over the handling of Covid. The result was a resounding rebuke for the A.N.C., particularly in urban areas. Significantly low voter turnout was a further indictment of the A.N.C. and of the main opposition parties, with voters choosing smaller, identity-driven parties.
After municipal setbacks in 2016, A.N.C. leaders promised to “learn from our mistakes,” and they staked their hopes this year on polling that found President Cyril Ramaphosa with a higher approval rating than that of his party.
South Africans may feel toward their president, they see a disconnect between his message of national renewal and the corruption that has sullied his party and crippled municipalities.
“They listen to him, they like him,” said Mcebisi Ndletyana, a political scientist at the University of Johannesburg. “But when they lower their eyes to the local leaders that are there, they see mediocrity.”
Not since the 1990s, when Nelson Mandela was the face of the party, has the A.N.C. so heavily relied on the personality of its leader in a local election, said William Gumede, chair of the Democracy Works Foundation. It was not enough to convince voters, but the A.N.C. may have dipped below 40 percent if Mr. Ramaphosa were not at the center of the campaign, Mr. Gumede said.
In the aftermath of the embarrassing showing this week, Mr. Ramaphosa is likely to face leadership challenges from within his party. To replace him, his opponents will have to find a unifying candidate. Mr. Ramaphosa, in turn, may have to fire tainted but popular leaders, Mr. Gumede said.
This fallout could lead to a split in the ruling party but prove to be good for South African voters.