South Africa’s ruling African National Congress (ANC) appears poised to lose its majority for the first time since it came to power at the end of apartheid. As support for the former liberation movement dips below 50%, the country faces a potential shift towards coalition government.

By early evening on Thursday, with 31.1% of votes counted, the ANC held 42.3% of the vote. The pro-business Democratic Alliance (DA) had secured 25%, and the Marxist-inspired Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) had 9%.

The newly formed uMkhonto we Sizwe (MK) party, led by former president Jacob Zuma, garnered 8.8%. Zuma, who was forced to resign in 2018 amid corruption allegations, has since clashed with current President Cyril Ramaphosa. Despite being barred from running due to a prison sentence for contempt of court, Zuma’s party has significantly impacted the election.

If these trends continue, it would mark a dramatic shift for the ANC, which has led South Africa since its historic 1994 victory under Nelson Mandela. Despite a decline during Zuma’s presidency, the ANC still managed 57.5% of the vote in 2019. However, rising unemployment, water shortages, and extended power cuts have eroded public support.

“The ANC has lost the election,” said David Everatt, a University of Witwatersrand professor and former ANC pollster. He noted that while the ANC will remain the largest party, its majority is gone. Everatt speculated that if the ANC secures more than 45% of the votes, it might form a coalition with smaller parties. Below that, a larger partner would be needed.

The ANC chair, Gwede Mantashe, remained optimistic about reaching the 50% mark and dismissed coalition discussions as premature. Helen Zille, the Democratic Alliance’s chair, expressed caution, warning against a leftwing coalition involving the ANC, MK, and EFF.

The EFF, led by Julius Malema, advocates for land expropriation without compensation but did not provide comments at the results center. MK’s secretary general, Sihle Ngubane, ruled out any coalition with the ANC under Ramaphosa.

Election results have predominantly come from rural areas, traditionally ANC strongholds. Tessa Dooms, a director at Rivonia Circle, emphasized that urban voter turnout would likely determine the final outcome.

Sy Mamabolo, chief executive of the Independent Electoral Commission, indicated that the vote counting had been delayed due to the introduction of a third ballot paper but aimed to announce results promptly.

As South Africa awaits the final tally, the nation stands on the brink of a historic political transformation, potentially ending the ANC’s longstanding dominance.