South Africa's Ramaphosa urges unity after historic ANC setback

President Ramaphosa (L) needs to negotiate with rivals like the DA's John Steenhuisen (C) and the EEF's Julius Malema (OLYMPIA DE MAISMONT)
President Ramaphosa (L) needs to negotiate with rivals like the DA's John Steenhuisen (C) and the EEF's Julius Malema (OLYMPIA DE MAISMONT)

President Cyril Ramaphosa urged South African party leaders to work together in the public interest Sunday, after his ANC lost its 30-year-old governing majority in a bruising general election.

But, in a sign of possible turmoil to come, graft-tainted former president Jacob Zuma boycotted the results ceremony and his party refused to recognise the outcome.

The final tally gave Ramaphosa's ruling African National Congress 159 places in the 400-seat National Assembly, its lowest score in a general election.

The centre-right opposition Democratic Alliance (DA) was on 87, Zuma's uMkhonto weSizwe (MK) on 58 and the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) of leftist firebrand Julius Malema on 39, followed by several minority outfits.

The vote share of late liberation leader Nelson Mandela's party slumped to just over 40 percent from the 57 percent it won in 2019.

The new parliament is to meet within two weeks and its first task will be to elect a president to form a new government.

But, with no outright winner for the first time since the advent of South Africa's post-apartheid democracy, the ANC will need outside support to secure Ramaphosa's re-election.

- 'Doomsday Coalition' -

In an address after the official results ceremony, Ramaphosa was coy about his thinking regarding a deal, but stressed the need for all parties to respect the results and work together.

"Our people have spoken, whether we like it or not," Ramaphosa said, in an apparent nod to the expected legal challenge from Zuma's MK and the implicit threat of unrest.

"As the leaders of political parties ... we must respect their wishes."

The DA's veteran white leader John Steenhuisen had repeated his pledge to work with the ANC, if only to head off what he has declared would be the "Doomsday Coalition" between the ruling party, Zuma's MK and the EFF.

He described pledges in the MK and EFF manifestos to nationalise privately owned land and undermine judicial independence as "an all-out assault on the constitution of our country".

ANC secretary general Fikile Mbalula told AFP the party was having "exploratory discussions at the moment, we talk to everybody". He said the ANC hoped to achieve a deal "as fast as we can".

- Provocation? -

In an ominous sign of disunity ahead, Zuma's supporters in the often restive eastern province of KwaZulu-Natal paraded round the countryside in noisy celebratory convoys but boycotted the provincial results announcement in Durban and the national event in Johannesburg.

Asked why Zuma stayed away, MK spokesman Nhlamulo Ndhlela said that to attend would be "tantamount to endorsing an illegal declaration".

On Saturday, Zuma had warned that to announce results he was not satisfied with would be tantamount to a "provocation".

The United States did not appear concerned over the results, with State Department spokesman Matthew Miller posting on social media to congratulate South Africans on "serving as a standard bearer of democracy throughout Africa and the world."

Zuma's MK, formed barely eight months ago as a vehicle for the charismatic but controversial 82-year-old to re-enter politics, came first in the KwaZulu-Natal provincial assembly election but without an outright majority.

His supporters have said they will not join a coalition unless there is an agreement to pardon Zuma for a conviction that saw him banned as a parliamentary candidate, and to rewrite the constitution to permit him to stand.

Zuma, forced out of office as president and ANC leader in 2018 under a cloud of corruption allegations, was jailed for contempt of court in 2021, which triggered riots that left more than 350 people dead.

- Calls for calm -

Police Minister Bheki Cele said the security forces were ready "to ensure continued peaceful conditions after the elections".

Speaking alongside him, Defence Minister Thandi Modise said the government had "not engaged directly with the MK party" but had "called for calm during the campaign".

"We will not tolerate for anyone to tarnish South Africa," Modise said.

The ANC retains the respect of many South Africans for its leading role in overthrowing white-minority rule.

Its progressive social welfare and black economic empowerment policies are credited by supporters with helping millions of black families out of poverty.

But over three decades of almost unchallenged rule its leadership has been implicated in a series of corruption scandals, while the continent's most industrialised economy has languished and crime and unemployment figures have hit record highs.