ANC losing its hegemony - lessons from around the world

It is now not a question of if the ANC will lose its national majority but when and that could be as early as the next national election in 2024.

Much ink has now been spilled following the 1 November Local Government Election, with many analysts and commentators saying that the election could herald a new era for South African politics.

The primary reason for this assertion is that – for the first time in South Africa’s history – fewer than 50% of voters cast their ballot for the ANC in a nationwide election (the ANC got about 46% of the vote on 1 November). This country – which has been politically dominated by the ANC since 1994 – could now be entering an era of true multi-party politics.

But the end of a hegemonic party, which stands astride the country like a colossus, is a common occurrence around the world. However, some dominant parties, like the ANC, which lose power collapse quickly and flounder in opposition, while other introspect and come back stronger in the future. Which way will the ANC go? And what lessons are there for the party looking at the experience of other countries?

The experiences of hegemonic parties in Kenya and Zambia has lessons for the ANC. In both those countries two parties dominated each country’s politics for many years – the Kenya African National Union (Kanu) in Kenya and the United National Independence Party (UNIP) in Zambia.

Both of those parties were each, for a time, the only legal political party in their respective countries, but they still had significant support for a time after multiparty politics became legalised. However, each of those parties now barely exist.

In Zambia UNIP had been the only legal party between 1973 and 1990 with multiparty elections being held in 1991. In the first election held after the unbanning of opposition parties UNIP lost the election, but still did fairly well, winning about a quarter of the vote. However, UNIP struggled afterwards, failing to make any real impact at the polls after that first multiparty election. In the most recent Zambian election, held earlier this year, UNIP failed to win even one percent, securing a measly 0.26% and no seats in Parliament.

Something similar happened to Kanu in Kenya. For a time Kanu was the only legal political party in the country until the 1990s wave of democratisation also washed up on the shores of Kenya and multiparty elections were held in 1992. Kanu won this election and its candidate for President, Daniel Arap Moi, also emerged victorious. However, support for Kanu soon began to decline as other political parties began emerging and in the most recent election in Kenya, in 2017, the party won only 2.4% of the vote.

South Africa has a similar example. The National Party (NP) governed South Africa from 1948 to 1994. After apartheid was dismantled and parties such as the ANC, the South African Communist Party, and the Pan-Africanist Congress were unbanned the holding of an election under universal suffrage became inevitable. In the first post-apartheid election the NP won 20% of the vote and control of the Western Cape. Ten years later, in 2004, having renamed itself the New National Party (NNP) it won less than two percent of the vote nationally and only ten percent in the Western Cape. A year later the party disbanded and its members of parliament joined the ANC.

These are but three examples of dominant parties that soon collapsed once they lost power.

But this phenomenon is not restricted to Africa. Moving to one of the more established democracies the tale of the Progressive Conservatives in Canada also shows that a large party suffering a significant electoral setback can struggle to make a comeback. In 1993 the party saw its support collapse. In the previous election, in 1988, it had won 43% of the vote and 169 of the 295 seats available in the Canadian parliament. However, in 1993 it shed more than half of its support, dropping to 16%, and won only two seats in Parliament. It struggled to regain its previous levels of support and after winning only 12% of the vote in 2000 the party dissolved and merged with another party to form the Canadian Conservative Party, which went on to govern the country in later years.

But when a big hegemonic party loses power it is not inevitable that it will collapse and be consigned to the dustbin of history.

The Indian National Congress also dominated that country for thirty years after independence in 1947, first losing an election in 1977. However, the party surged and won majorities in the two subsequent elections. It also continued to be an important player in later years in Indian politics, forming governments numerous times. It has now fallen on hard times, winning only 20% of the vote in the last two elections, held in 2014 and 2019.

It is now not a question of if the ANC will lose its national majority but when and that could be as early as the next national election in 2024. And how will the party fare in opposition.

In the only province where the ANC has lost power the trend is not encouraging for the party. In 2004 the ANC was the single-biggest party in that province, winning 45% of the vote and governing with the help of the NNP. However, it lost power to the DA in 2009 and in the last election in the province, in 2019, it won less than 30% of the vote, with the DA winning three consecutive provincial elections.

Once the ANC loses power it is quite likely that the party will fail to consolidate and introspect and it could suffer the fate of organisations like UNIP or the NP. It could soon be the case that we will be living in not only a country where the ANC is not only not in government anymore but does not even exist.

And that day could be closer than we think.



Cover image source available here.